New generation reinvigorates South Asian dance at the Gait to the Spirit festival

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We’ve gotten used to thinking of classical dance forms like ballet and flamenco in contemporary terms. Companies both here and around the globe are updating those styles and pushing them into brave new territory. But can the thousands-of-years-old form of Indian classical dance also be “contemporary”?

The answer, from the Gait to the Spirit festival’s Jai Govinda, is a resounding yes. Now in its third year, the annual event brings in the style’s hottest young dancers on the planet. And not only are they taking the South Asian form into the here-and-now, they are a growing force.

“There are plenty of beautiful dancers all over the world. I have to refuse people all the time,” Govinda tells the Straight from his home in Vancouver. “I don’t think there’s a main city in the world where Indian classical dance is not practised and taught. Germany, Hong Kong, Spain, Argentina, Russia—you name it, it’s everywhere!”

Govinda launched the festival as a platform for the dancers, who are often left out of the—here’s that word again—contemporary festival circuit here. “That’s been the main thing: to present, to educate, and to show a very vibrant life in the Indian classical form,” explains Govinda, artistic director of the Mandala Arts and Culture Society, which puts on the festival. The director of the Jai Govinda Dance Academy was once a dancer at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens before delving deep into bharata natyam in India.

This year’s program of performances and workshops brings together, for the first time, all three of the most popular Indian dance forms: bharata natyam, odissi, and kathak.

Shalini Patnaik is an odissi specialist who has performed with everyone from Madonna to Anoushka Shankar. Aakash Odedra (who appears Friday night [October 26] at the Scotiabank Dance Centre, on a double bill with Patnaik) will be doing a presentation in kathak, the mesmerizing North Indian storytelling dance, but he’s better known in the U.K. as a contemporary artist who recently performed a solo evening of cutting-edge choreography called Rising at the Sadler’s Wells theatre. And the headliner, bharata natyam dancer Savitha Sastry, who takes her ethereal, sculptural style to places as far-flung as Australia and the Middle East, has a show here on the Saturday night (October 27). The draw is not only their sheer technique and the beauty of their dance, but also the way they have adapted the art form to today’s production standards, Govinda says.

“Now it’s about the lighting and the staging that the older generation of dancers didn’t care so much about,” Govinda explains. “Because of the sensation of YouTube, this generation of dancers is more well-educated; they see other kinds of dance performances and know what’s going on in the world.”

As part of the fest, Mandala also likes to show some of the new work that’s happening right here in Vancouver. This year, young bharata natyam dancer Malavika Santhosh, a graduate of the Jai Govinda Dance Academy, will perform choreography by Govinda during a matinee on Sunday (October 28).

Vancouver is a thriving hub of South Asian dance, with 12 schools now teaching bharata natyam. Not surprisingly, the festival is partially geared to those up-and-comers. “These young people want to see the best classical dance in the world,” he says. And watching the hypnotic, highly skilled form live beats catching it on YouTube any day.

The Gait to the Spirit festival runs Friday to Monday (October 26 to 29) at the Scotiabank Dance Centre.

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