Navarasa Dance Theater’s Encounter focuses ancient arts on modern violence

Classical Indian music, movement, and more fuse to reveal a contemporary Indigenous crisis

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      Navarasa Dance Theater draws on India’s classical arts, but its subject matter is often grittily contemporary.

      Take Encounter, the dance-theatre work the Boston-based company is bringing here. The show fuses traditional Indian music, bharata natyam, martial arts, and acrobatics—but far from the light spectacle that mix might suggest, it centres on a tale as political as it is disturbing. Based on a Mahasweta Devi short story, it follows Dopdi, a poor Indigenous woman fighting for justice in India against corrupt, oppressive forces.

      To understand how dark Encounter gets, take a clue from its title: it’s a sinister euphemism used in India by law enforcement to brush off run-ins that end with the torture, death, or disappearance of opponents.

      “The state will say, ‘It was an encounter,’ but the encounter tactic is to imprison people, and so many times those people die,” Aparna Sindhoor tells the Straight from Boston, speaking over the phone with cocreator Anil Natyaveda, before heading to Vancouver.

      “The original story happens in India but it’s pretty much happening around the world to Indigenous people,” she stresses. “In India, you have no idea what is going on in the deep forest where the state is so abusive to the Indigenous people.”

      Sindhoor’s work was not always so political, but she was immersed in different art forms as a girl. From a young age, she devoted herself to the classical dance form bharata natyam (“My classes were every single day,” she remembers), but also studied singing and theatre, thanks to parents who loved those art forms. As a young adult, Sindhoor became a classical dance soloist who toured the country, but after years of devoting herself to the art form, she began to tire of it. “My father said, ‘If you don’t like what you’re doing, go make your own dance,’ ” she recalls, and that’s just what she started to do in her studio—departing from bharata natyam’s traditional subject matter of deities and mythology.

      Encounter takes its title from a sinister euphemism used in India by law enforcement to brush off run-ins that end with the torture, death, or disappearance of opponents.
      Christopher Joseph

      It wasn’t till she left for Boston University, where she received her doctorate in dance, that Sindhoor really started pushing the boundaries of her form—and founded her company with Natyaveda and writer-director S. M. Raju. Indian-raised Natyaveda brought his own extensive training in classical dance and an interest in social issues: “My father was a poet and a social worker so I had a very good view of these problems,” he says.

      Inspired by Devi’s moving story, Sindhoor started creating Encounter back in 2009 as a solo, but found the subject matter too taxing to face alone. “It was a little much to emotionally handle,” she admits. “Anil said to me, ‘Do a group production so there’s more support.’ At Navarasa we’re always building family and community within the performances.”

      In the show, she and Natyaveda play artists who slave under exploitive landowners by day and entertain and rally their fellow peasants to resist in their off-hours. The two say they chose the far-flung performance styles—from Natyaveda hanging from a central symbolic pole in an aerial dance to villagers using martial-arts techniques during a clash with authorities—according to what best suited the subject matter. “We never say, as choreographers, ‘Let’s put an aerial dance here,’” he explains. “When we think about the emotion of the section we go for what that calls for.”

      What they’ve created is an idiom all its own—something the L.A. Times described as “a timeless, mythic presentational style with a charged political message that’s strangely contemporary”. At the same time, Sindhoor and her collaborators have gone beyond the politics of their homeland, and managed to make a work they now see as a tribute to Indigenous peoples around the globe.

      The Cultch and Diwali in B.C. present Encounter at the York Theatre from Tuesday to next Sunday (October 17 to October 22).