Dressed in a solid olive bandhgala, Misty Wensel appears on the stage as Grandmother Spider and weaves a cosmic web using fluid movements that create spatial patterns across the stage. While she moves, Joanna De Souza recites Kathak bols and a group of dancers form a huddle reminiscent of a nest.
From this nest, a first soul emerges into the world, followed by others. From these ancient beginnings suggesting star dust, the dancers begin to investigate their relationship with the cosmos.
Exploring the in-between states of death and rebirth, award-winning Canadian Kathak artist Joanna De Souza and contemporary dancer Wensel create an intriguing narrative in movement with their radical new work Bardo.
“Bardo state” is a concept that comes from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a state where the consciousness goes through different experiences after death and before the next rebirth.
The production premiered on Republic Day at National Centre of Performing Arts, Mumbai, and is travelling to Delhi, Panjim, Bengaluru and Kolkata over a fortnight.
For a subject so abstract and intangible, the dance production is surprisingly fluid and uses the vocabulary of Kathak and contemporary dance to tell the story. The narrative proceeds in six stages.
Once alive and attached to flesh and bone, the human souls, all dressed as pairs in solid coloured bandhgalas, slowly awaken to their new environment and lay the roots of bodily knowledge. This second stage of the dance features a duet that represents the tactile nature of our bodies, through which we gather wisdom about the different elements of this earthly experience.
In the third stage, life warms up, wakes up, and speeds to a soundscape timed in triplets and footwork in a combination of symmetrical and asymmetrical patterns. Finally, the dancers move as one.
The text of the Tibetan Book of the Dead also includes chapters on the signs of death and rituals to undertake when death is closing in or has taken place. The drama of this step is played out in the fourth stage.
A body dies, a loved one mourns and a priest recites. The disembodied soul is led away by an enlightened being while the material body is carried off. The audience is moved to tears as this most identifiable act resonates with each person in the auditorium.
In the fifth stage, one is left disturbed and restless as we see the struggle of bardo play out in a solo by the agile and emotive Wensel. The fiery solo is an enactment of the troubled soul that must overcome its desire to remain in the world.
The impact of the act is amplified as the rest of the dancers form a court around Wensel. Finally, the soul chooses freedom, and closure is brought to its life on earth. The dancers turn in unison and achieve release, the death experience is complete and the audience erupts in a thunderous impromptu applause.
Depicting the cyclical nature of our existence, in the sixth and final stage, the dancers return to the spider web and revisit earlier themes, echoing the process of birth, death and rebirth. In the end, the dancers return their bodies to star dust, where it all began.
De Souza and Wensel say it is inspired by Canadian indigenous creation myths and the Tibetan Buddhist concept of bardo, which refers to the liminal stages of life, death and rebirth. Like the many faces and unified heart of Canadian identity, Bardo’s choreography is syncretic in nature, and manifests a sense of being “in-between” two dance styles, two mythologies, two continents, and two worlds.
The production also marks 150 years of Canada. It represents the country’s multicultural demographic where diversity is celebrated, as a country of migrants where everyone is in an in-between state as far as identity is concerned. This fact comes out beautifully as you notice that the performers are all from different ethnicities sharing nuances of their native cultures through the language of dance.
“The Bardo artist team fully represents the cultural mosaic that is Canada. Dancers’ backgrounds are from Romania, China, India, East Africa, Scotland, Hungary, Poland and England,” shares De Souza.
On the influence of Indian classical performing arts in Canada, T.K. Raghunathan, president of Kabir Centre for Arts and Culture, Montreal, that regularly presents South Asian Performing arts across the country, says, “Now, there are native Canadian artists who regularly perform Indian music which they have learnt from Indian gurus. For dance, it is mostly the artists of Indian origin having immigrated to Canada, who have established their own dance schools in Canadian cities.
“In this area also, there are some native Canadian artists, who have mastered Indian classical dances, mostly Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Odissi. The Canadian Arts Council and the provincial arts councils encourage the presentation and production of Indian classical arts shows through various grants awarded to professional arts entities.”
De Souza agrees, “Over the past 30 years, Indian dance and music has moved out of the specific communities it represents, to join other performance dance and music forms on the main stages across the country. Through festivals, including KalaNidhi Fine Arts Festival, Kathak Mahotsav, Body Percussion Festival, and many more, both traditional and innovative works based on South Asian dance have become the norm for Canadian audiences to experience.”
Speaking of her experience with Kathak for the last three decades, she adds, “Through its deep form and flexibility, it has the perfect components to express any narrative, to work with any musical form, and to truly continue to be a dance of expression for artists and audiences of the 21st century.”
However, creating this work was pure labour of love, as the dancers and musicians live in different corners of Canada. While De Sousa, the founder of M-DO Kathak Toronto, and music composer Ian De Souza are based in Toronto, Wensel, the principal choreographer for Contemporary Dance and founder of FadaDance, is based in Regina, 2,000 kilometres away.
The additional dancers are presently living and working in the UK, US and Brussels. “I took Kathak lessons from a student of Joanna’s and that’s how I became familiar with her work. Once we saw the idea taking shape, it was over many video sessions and a few rehearsal meets that the final work took shape, three years after the idea was born,” says Wensel.
In India, the show is being performed at a variety of venues. In Panjim it is being staged at the Adil Shah Palace on 6 February while in Kolkata at the GB Birla Sabhagar on 10 February.
“We really have no expectations, as to how the audiences will react—always hoping, of course, that they will feel something in the work that will resonate with them, and their personal experience,” says De Souza.
“With our first two programmes, in Mumbai and Delhi complete, and from response with our Artist Talk Back sessions with these audiences, we are pleased that the work is meaningful in personal ways to audience members,” she adds.
Upcoming shows on the Bardo tour
6 Feb, Adil Shah Palace, Panjim
10 Feb, GD Birla Sabhagar, Kolkata