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Classical Indian dance artist Sujit Vaidya was scheduled to perform for our Discover Dance! series on May 14 before things…. changed. But Sujit has kindly shared some insights into his work, bharata natyam, and how he’s managing as an artist during these social distancing times.
How did you get involved with dance?
My dance life is a happy accident. I have felt a strong connection with dance from a very young age. However, my formal involvement (training) came much later in life. I started training in bharata natyam at the very tender age of 35. This was a dance form that I felt a strong connection to throughout my growing years in India, much of which were academically oriented. My first formal dance lesson was actually at Scotiabank Dance Centre and within two or three classes, I knew without a shred of doubt that I needed to respond to this strong instinct that was guiding me. I always joke that this is a bonus phase in my life because it has unfolded organically without me trying to make specific things happen. This is a lesson I am only now learning to recognize and appreciate, a lesson in being present.
What do you love most about bharata natyam?
Its many teachings that I learn life lessons from. Initially, one is invested in the external. But as the lessons deepen and the layers unfold, the depth this form can offer reveals itself. It really is a lesson in mindfulness. Alignment of mind, body, spirit, breath, space and time are at its core. The misconception that the formality, rigour and structure of the form are “limiting” is troubling. Yes, the practice of it is structured, but years (decades) of investment allow for an experience that can be as limitless as one’s imagination. However, the discipline required in one’s grounding is gruelling.
On a lighter note, my most nostalgic memories of bharata natyam are sensory…. the smell of fresh jasmine flowers which unfortunately very few dancers use now, the bright red palms and feet painted with alta (red dye) and the sound of the mridangam (percussion instrument).
Tell us about the duet you recently created with contemporary choreographer Alvin Erasga Tolentino.
This is a duet we collaborated on for Co ERASGA’s latest work, Passages Of Rhythm. The duet is one of three in a 60-minute work and Alvin’s idea was to engage with artists from three very distinct genres and create dances that allowed us to experience each other’s world. Alvin and I had collaborated briefly in 2010 for The Dance Centre’s 10x10x10 project, and this duet is i-formed from that space. Alvin is curious about mudras (hand gestures) used in bharata natyam so we used a few mudras to create a world of possibilities. We used some rhythmic phrases and footwork in addition to the mudras and created space to improvise with all of those elements from bharata natyam. On the other hand I had to learn how to drop my head, curve my spine and roll on the floor all of which I had never done before. Vancouver-based musician Ron Stelting has created the score for our duet using an array of percussion and wind instruments, including a massive gong!!
What was the last thing you were working on before the pandemic?
This is heartbreaking to revisit. We were in the final stages of production for Śiva kissed Viṣṇu, a duet choreographed by Hari Krishnan, artistic director of inDANCE, Toronto, which was set to premiere at the Vancouver International Dance Festival on March 18. We were in rehearsal up until March 16, when BC banned gatherings of over 50 people and the festival was cancelled. Thankfully we have been invited back and so I am hopeful that we will get to present this work.
What is your proudest moment to date?
I am proud of my ability to listen, question, break, build and grow. I am proud that I am able to embrace discomfort, stay true to my voice and make my own way forward. It is challenging to break from the noise in a “traditional” world and I am proud that I have fleeting moments of freedom and fearlessness where I am not seeking any external validation . I hope to have more and more of these moments.
What are you doing at home to keep moving and sustain your artistic practice?
In the uncertainty of COVID-19 times, I am trying to apply the lesson of “being”. In allowing myself to feel what the moment brings, sitting in it and letting it inform my “reality”. I have been thinking more and more of “stillness” in my dance practice even before the pandemic arrived and it is bizarre to “experience” it in the physical world. I want to settle in it and see if/how that shifts my practice. Breaking away from all things familiar are actually keeping me sane. I am not forcing anything specific and responding to what the day might bring. I am embracing the disruption and keeping faith that my practice will sustain itself.
Stay safe, stay well and above all, be kind to yourself.
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Photos by Chris Randle and J’Adore Andy Photography