Having seen much of Nova Bhattacharya’s work over the past ten years, I was looking forward to her solo show, “Isolated Incidents”, presented as part of the 2009/2010 Danceworks Season at the Enwave Theatre, May 13th through 15th, 2010. I know Nova not only as an accomplished performer and choreographer but also as a fellow arts consultant within the Toronto dance community. Over the years we have sat on a number of boards and committees together since she left the corporate world and devoted herself to dance full-time. I have also seen many of Bhattacharya’s performances — her early collaboration with fellow bharatanatyam specialist Hari Krishnan exploring traditional repertoire; the phenomenal 2006 “Calm Abiding”, a work made for her by Montréal’s José Navas; and her angular, formulaic group work “Related Fragments” for Toronto Dance Theatre’s Four at the Winch series in 2007. From these encounters I know Bhattacharya to be a dancer and choreographer of fierce intelligence and integrity with a delightfully wicked sense of humour.
With these attributes in mind, I went to her one-woman show keen to see how this particular venture would manifest. “Isolated Incidents” has been in process for more than three years — much longer than any other work in her oeuvre to date. Such an intensive process is understandable when one is preparing to perform solo, perhaps the ultimate platform for self-disclosure. In her pre-press material the work was subtitled “Nova does Nova”, leading me to wonder what we would learn about the artist.
The evening opens with Bhattacharya reclining upstage right in a contorted, frog-like position so that all the audience can see of her is her inverted face, shoulders and knees. The stage is strewn with marigolds — a reference to their ubiquitous use as part of puja, acts of devotion in vedic culture and in South Indian classical dance in particular. Downstage left, a square column supports a plastic goldfish in a bowl – in the space habitually occupied by the deity for whom classical dance repertoire is conventionally performed.
The lights come up and the sound of dripping water cross-fades into the beginning of Iggy Pop’s 1981 recording of ¬“Sea of Love”: “Do you remember when we met? That’s the day I knew you were my pet.” Is this a reference to the goldfish? And 1981? Bhattacharya would have been in grade school presumably, so does this song hold any particular significance for her? Not all the choreographer’s secrets are revealed.
Bhattacharya rises to her feet. She is dressed in a black tank unitard accessorized by fetish wear. A pvc headdress with tail references the braid worn by some South Asian dancers, laced elbow-length gloves make her hands appear hoof-like, and a pair of snorkelling flippers inhibit her feet. The music shifts to a vigorous tabla score as she awkwardly shuffles across the stage bearing handfuls of marigolds to her goldfish god.
This first section, “A Fish Named Sky”, reads as a spoof of bharatanatyam vocabulary and conventions. In a cheeky image, Bhattacharya lies on her stomach, hands beneath her chin with flippers touching. The costume does not detract from her huge expressive eyes but with her hands concealed, her gestures — commonly known as mudras or hasta in Indian classical dance — are obscured. The rhythmic tabla score, though a new composition by Ed Hanley, is quite traditional in feel and Bhattacharya’s movements dutifully follow the accents in the music.
The overall effect is rather perverse and sometimes difficult to watch because of the boundness of her movements, the painful-looking penguin-like heel shuffling, and the way the costume disfigures her body, most notably her hands. When she removed the headdress and elbow-length gloves at the end of the section, I was greatly relieved.
This first section, which may allude to life in a fish bowl, is broken up by an interlude of spoken text that begins with Bhattacharya blurting out, “Once upon a time there was a fish named Sky.” Several stories follow — some drawn from Bhattacharya’s imagination, others from traditional Hindu mythology – each prefaced with “Once upon a time ….” Such storytelling usually forms the abhinaya sections of classical bharatanatyam work, in which the story is narrated by a vocalist as the dancer describes the action through movement. Here Bhattacharya weaves tales of the gods with stories from her childhood. At the conclusion, Bhattacharya strips off the pvc ware, her skin glistening as if awaking from a torrid dream.
The middle section, titled “Aditi – limitless”, begins with Bhattacharya expertly folding and wrapping herself in a smoke-coloured sari. The score now evokes a street scene – is it Toronto? Or Mumbai? Bhattacharya’s movements are more flowing, contemplative, derived from a contemporary idiom yet still occasionally punctuated by a bharatanatyam aramandi stance or extension. At one point she lowers herself onto her haunches, with her sari draped over her head. Her face, framed by the gossamer fabric, grows calm as she watches this imaginary world go by. It is a beautiful moment.
In the final section, “Anjali – offering”, Bhattacharya replaces her sari with a simple white tunic, and moves in sweeping, diagonal arcs across the stage. She appears most “herself” here – twenty-first century Nova — revelling in her body’s movement, leaving the bharatanatyam vocabulary behind and exploring the space unconstrained. The carefree quality of her movement harks back to the final story she told in the first section, in which the fish dreams herself into a girl who dances with the sky.
Bhattacharya’s chief collaborators — Ed Hanley who provided the sound design and Marc Parent who provided the lighting design — give the work depth where it is needed. Hanley’s soundtrack contains pleasing traces of a Middle Eastern flute reminiscent of Duran Duran’s “Don’t Say a Prayer for Me Now” as well as credited samples of Jimmy Page’s spacey guitar effects from “Stairway to Heaven”. Parent lights the Enwave Theatre’s deep, narrow stage with a soft, nuanced palette that lends itself well to Bhattacharya’s dreamlike setting. At one point the marigolds appear to glow magically in the dark.
While the humour and intellect of the Nova I know were very much in evidence, I wish I could say that I appreciated “Isolated Incidents” more. I wish that I had been able to take the journey along with the artist and arrive elated at the end by her efforts to question, poke fun at and deconstruct her life and her practice. While I can imagine the work that went into the piece, especially the first section, for me the work that came out was sadly disappointing and strangely thin.