These are times in which we need to bear witness.
The impetus for Nova Bhattacharya’s latest work, Infinite Storms, at The Theatre Centre in Toronto, came from a very personal place — her experience living with migraines. But, as Bhattacharya said in a talkback session after the performance, it seems like there’s a lot of pain going on around us right now, and the show tapped into some of those anxieties. Besides, there’s something to be said for catharsis. More on that shortly.
Although Bhattacharya’s parents think she has been experiencing migraines since she was eleven, she was not diagnosed with the condition until she was in her mid- to late-twenties, when she started seeking treatments for them. Until then, they were a mystery occurrence. Once diagnosed, the migraines came and went until around 2003, when there was such a surge of them that she sought the help of neurologists. They suggested a range of approaches to deal with them. While the migraines lay low for a few years after those interventions, they returned in 2012, escalating into a period of intense chronic migraines. Now, the migraines are episodic again.
But you didn’t need to know any of this backstory to connect with what unfolded onstage. As Bhattacharya realized one day, after many years of resisting to draw from her personal experience with migraines, anyone who has been through some sense of suffering — depression, grief or other sorts of physical pain — could understand.
Bhattacharya’s migraines, and the ways in which she copes with them, were jumping-off points for the five dancers’ interpretation. Bhattacharya, Atri Nundy and Malar Varatharaja dug deep into their bharatanatyam training (a style of classical Indian dance known for its plié-like positions, linear movements, elaborate hand gestures called mudras and emotive expressions called abhinaya), while Kate Holden and Molly Johnson brought their abilities with western-based contemporary dance to the piece.
Together, they created a dance language that needed no translation. Together, the five women were a sight to behold. And the moment Bhattacharya thought about creating a dance about experiencing pain, she knew “It had to be a piece featuring all women,” she said in the talkback session. “Because women carry pain, and show us the way to live through it.”
The work used the stages of a migraine — prodrome, aura, main attack, resolution and recovery — as the structure. At some points Johnson and Holden danced together, using their dance vocabulary to express the buildup to the aura, for example; at others, Nundy and Varatharaja took centre stage pounding the stage with bharatanatyam’s myth-based movements to demonstrate the main attack. Johnson’s frenetic movements and sinewy slithers were a wondrous expression of a body throbbing with pain, wracked in its inability to describe what’s happening. Varatharaja’s mesmerizing expressions — the force of the pain surging through her person and the gentle pleas her brain was sending to appease it — revealed bharatanatyam’s nuanced abhinaya in a new way.
In the middle of it all was Bhattacharya, who created beautiful moments and movements, despite the subject matter. From the first time she was revealed onstage, coming out of a cocoon of saris that suggested a neural network, her eyes glistening with tears, her face suffused in a kind of delirious joy, it was impossible to look away. Bhattacharya has noted that migraines are often difficult to talk about because there are no words to describe the all-consuming pain. But her dance spoke volumes above the musical score. Speaking of which, the soundscape produced by Ed Hanley was a masterful composition, melding trigger points for Nova — rain and street noise — along with experiments in Indian classical music featuring percussive and string instruments.
Infinite Storms ended on a hopeful note. Bhattacharya likes to point out that while the piece is about pain, it is also about surviving it. As the audience walked out of the theatre, there was a sense of release, a sense of having lived through someone’s experience of a body spiralling out of control, but then coming out on the other side with a smile, even a chuckle.
As Suvendrini Lena, a neurologist with CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto), said in the talkback session following the performance, addressing Bhattacharya, “For those people in the audience who don’t know what it is to live through a migraine, you let them in on the experience of the pain. It allowed us to sit in that space.” And by sharing that experience, hopefully there will be empathy for others who might be in pain, and their process for dealing with the pain.
It’s certainly a metaphor for the strange times we are living in right now. So if you ever get a chance to see Infinite Storms (and hopefully there will be encore performances in the near future), you must go and bear witness.