Two dancers’ surprising journeys
From afar, Indian classical 2
dance is easily perceived as a homogeneous art form marked by dramatic facial expressions, articulated hand gestures, and sparkling costumes. In this context, it might not be at all surprising to hear a story about a Bengali girl who fell in love with bharata natyam.
But in Bangladesh, a largely Muslim country, that dance was a rare pursuit when Arno Kamolika was young. After all, the storytelling form has its roots in totally different cultures—buddhist and Hindu ritual and mythology. Other classical styles like odissi and manipuri were much more popular in Bangladesh, and Kamolika studied those in a fine-arts school as a girl. However, when she was about 16, a bharata natyam guru came to lead a two-month workshop, and Kamolika says she was hooked for life.
“It was the storytelling of it,” she says with passion over the phone to the Straight from her home here. “And that was when I decided I won’t do any other dance. What triggered me about bharata natyam was I could see the artists who were getting so emotionally involved with their character— and I always have been a great fan of movies and theatre. I thought, ‘This dance lets me become a dancer and at the same time a character as well.’”
Flash forward to Vancouver, the last place Kamolika expected to pursue her art form when she arrived here from Bangladesh in 2010 to continue her architecture studies. But soon she found Mandala Arts’ bharata natyam master Jai Govinda here, and delved even further into the classical dance, touring to festivals everywhere from India to Germany and the U.S.
This fall, watch for her to take her specialty to wider audiences, pushing bharata natyam into new territory with her most ambitious project to date—one that ties her beloved Indian dance to the heritage of her homeland.
Shyama—which debuts at Diwali in Vancouver on October 27 at the York Theatre, in a copresentation with the Vancouver Tagore Society and the Mandala Arts & Culture Society—tells Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore’s epic dance drama through bharata natyam dance. The Nobel laureate’s 1939 work follows a courtesan who saves the hero from the scaffold and runs away with him. Shyama is the fruition of almost three years of work, featuring direction by Rohit Chokhani, original choreography by Jai Govinda, a score by Bengali-canadian composer Shankhanaad Mallick, and four other bharata natyam dancers.
“I feel so close to both these things,” she says of the dance and Tagore’s poetry, which her parents often read while she was growing up. “I was a bit nervous when I started. But bharata natyam is not an ancient form; it has its roots in ancient text and temples, but it is as contemporary as any other dance,” she adds, likening the style to ballet.
Kamolika hopes to expose new audiences to the dance’s beauty and technique, as well as to Bengali literature and music. “It’s been such a journey to make this production. It’s so Canadian,” she says, referring to the mix of cultures the show brings together, including its French-canadian choreographer, dancers from diverse parts of India, and a director from Mumbai. “So bharata natyam is connecting all of us. It makes me very happy.”
> JANET SMITH STEPHANIE CYR
Stéphanie Cyr knows there 2
really is no place like home— something it took the dancer several years of searching to appreciate. Now that she’s back in Vancouver, however, things have never been better. The magnetic performer with the striking dark, cropped hair and expressive, muscular style is set to perform in Action at a Distance’s Never Still at the Firehall Arts Centre from September 26 to 29, and in projects with choreographers from Lesley Telford to Wen Wei Wang soon after.
But this wasn’t where her professional career started. Right out of graduation from Arts Umbrella’s training program in 2013, Cyr landed a dream job. Italian choreographer Walter Matteini had come to the school to work with its students, and he handpicked her to come back to his and Ina Broeckx’s buzzedabout imperfect Dancers Company in historic Pisa.
It was an amazing experience: a chance to tour through Italy, Germany, and South America while taking on physically challenging, cutting-edge dance. But it was also a severe culture shock to the young Cyr, who hails from small Shawville, outside of Ottawa, and who had never travelled to Europe before.
“At that age, you don’t know much about yourself,” admits the artist, sitting in a Chinatown café before heading to rehearsals with Action at a Distance’s Vanessa Goodman. “And it’s a huge learning curve to move away from home and be on your own with new roommates and language barriers and cultural differences. You pick yourself up and put yourself in another petri dish.”
After a year and a half, “I just knew Italy wasn’t my home,” she says, pausing thoughtfully. “I was also questioning whether to keep dancing or not.”
Cyr packed up and headed back to Ontario to live with her parents—the ones who had so devotedly driven her to dance lessons in Ottawa five nights a week. She spent the time resting, reflecting, and dancing back at the capital’s School of Dance. “I needed to figure out what kind of work I should be doing,” she explains.
It worked. After her break, Cyr enjoyed a short stint in Montreal, then made the trek back to Vancouver, a place that had welcomed her before. “I knew I had a community here, even though it’s smaller,” she says, adding she wanted to be part of a scene that was on the upswing. “There’s definitely some kind of wave happening—i remember being in Montreal and thinking, ‘I need to be there for it.’ But I was also ultimately attracted to the people here. There’s a work ethic in Vancouver, for sure.”
Those people have included Ballet BC alumna Rachel Meyer, who cast Cyr as a mothlike creature in her midnight showings of the hypnotic Transverse Orientation this summer; and Ballet BC alumnus Christoph von Riedemann, with whom Cyr performed an outdoor Dance Deck work in August. Her work this fall will be diverse: Action at a Distance finds her performing in and around giant strips of Tyvek that act as projection surfaces for Loscil’s atmospheric audio-visuals in Goodman’s water-themed Never Still. A reworking of Telford’s duet My tongue, your ear sets an ironic poem about lovers parting against composer Nico Muhly’s angular viola.
Expect to see Cyr fiercely commit to each work—both physically and emotionally, in performances where she connects openly with her audience.
“I like to feel something about the project that’s slightly out of reach, or that includes something I haven’t attempted before,” says Cyr, who’s finding what she needs here. “I definitely want to create a space where the performance aspect and the audience can meet in the middle…where I’m not forcing them to feel or see the work in one way.”
> JANET SMITH