Gait to the Spirit Festival


Scheherazaad Cooper flies to her home city of Vancouver to report on Gait to Spirit Festival, a South Asian dance spectacular in Western Canada.  


As we open the second annual Gait to the Spirit festival, a collection of spectators gather anxiously at the theatre doors of The Dance Centre in downtown Vancouver, Canada.  Mandala Arts & Culture artistic director, Jai Govinda has a reputation for presenting world-class dance, and this weekend is no exception. The festival has grown out of Govinda’s desire to showcase Indian classical dance and to provide a professional platform for young dancers. As such, each festival is a combination of performers including a local young artist.  This year’s line-up includes Sri Rahul Acharya (odissi) from India, Smt. Priyadarsini Govind (bharatanatyam) also from India, and Kiruthika Rathanaswami (bharatanatyam) a local artist from Vancouver.

The festival opens with Rahul Acharya; an exponent of the Deba Prasad Das style and a disciple of Guru Durga Charan Ranbir, known for his depth of bend, precision, and poise.  Hailing from the geographic birthplace of odissi dance, Orissa, India, Acharya has proved to be a significant presence not only on the stage but also in the academic arena. 

The stage opens to dim blue lights falling on two columns that have been placed one either side of the stage, evoking the vision of a temple at dawn.  Acharya enters the stage and the spirituality within his performance is palpable and embodied.  His chauka, the traditional square-bend position of odissi dance, is maintained with the feet closer together than I have seen before­—they are only a few inches apart, as opposed to the traditional foot— and yet the depth of bend is not only impressive but highly enviable! The emphasis on the masculine aspects of Odissi as well as Acharya’s own idiosyncratic embodiment of the movements and poses, clearly filtered through his dedicated yoga practice, present an Odissi that is at once sweet and strong.  In the close of his final piece, Acharya in the glow of a dim red light, turned his back to the audience with legs apart, raised his arms above his head in prayer and slowly arched his upper body until the tip of his pressed palms touched the floor behind his feet, creating a full arch; a fitting and breathtaking end to a beautiful and extremely well received performance.

The second night of the festival presents Priyadarsini Govind, a celebrated international performer from Chennai and disciple of Guru Swamimalai K. Rajaratnam and Smt. Kalanidhi Narayanan.  The festival has had to shift to a larger theatre in order to accommodate the audience, the program is sold-out.

As soon as Govind enters the stage, the reason for her renown becomes apparent.  Presenting a full repertoire with live musicians, she showcases her long physical lines and deep bends, her carefully contained energy, and the exquisite versatility of her abhinaya.   Govind presented three abhinaya pieces, ranging from the despair of a mother losing her child, to the excitement of a woman greeting her lover after bidding her husband farewell, and finally the mirth of a mischievous young Krishna.  A moment in this last piece, saw young Krishna calling his innocent neighbour girl over to sing, he asks her to sing a very sad tune which she says she cannot because she has not ever felt such pain, to which a sly Krishna pinches her and as she cries says ‘there you go! Now you’re singing with pain’.  Govind captured the distinction between the characters and their youthful physicality so fully that one could clearly visualize the exchange between the two children as though they were plainly in front of you.  The musicians accompanied each piece with a vibrancy that fed both the audience and Govind, who seemed never to tire even as she performed the last energetic Tillana.

The final performance of the festival is local artist Kiruthika Rathanaswami.  Having been awarded the Indo-Shastri fellowship for study in India, Rathanaswami presented a combination of pieces learned while she was away and others choreographed by her Guru Jai Govinda in Canada.  Taking on the daunting prospect of closing the festival (and with both Sri Acharya and Smt Govind in the audience), Kiruthika held the stage with delicacy and command.   What immediately stands out about Rathanaswami is the clean linear geometry of her arms.  Each movement is completed and perfectly placed, yet she does not lose the flow of her dance.  She manages to balance a lithe movement quality with sharp physicality and retains this balance throughout the performance.  It was also charming for this reviewer to note a certain comfort Rathanaswami eased in to when performing the pieces choreographed by Guru Jai Govinda, as though her body is more comfortable with the sequencing; although she carried out each item with energy and finesse. 

In conclusion, Gait to the Spirit is quickly becoming an annual cultural event in Vancouver not to be missed.  The dates for next year have already been announced, October 27-30 2012, and the line-up is shortly to follow.  Alongside performances, the festival also included a deeply informative lecture demonstration on odissi by Rahul Acharya and a two-day abhinaya intensive with Priyadarsini Govind for advanced students.  In his desire to promote Indian Classical dance in performance and dialogue, Govinda is developing an important platform in Western Canada for Indian classical dance to further define itself.  All in all, if you’re in Vancouver this time next year - you should go! 

Scheherazaad Cooper