“Dance Says What Words Cannot:” Nova Bhattacharya on Finding Joy, Connection, and Rebellion Through Movement

Top Image © Emma Forhan

By Vanessa Grant

When award-winning artist Nova Bhattacharya began creating her latest dance work, Svāhā!, in 2018, she had no idea a global pandemic would keep her from performing it live for over four years. But the extra time has been transformative, causing Bhattacharya to rethink what dance means to her while infusing the piece with new meaning.

“I think the most important thing about dance is how grounding it is, how it can reconnect us after all the isolation and distancing,” she explained. “When we dance with someone, our heartbeats sync up and bring us into a shared experience, reminding us that we’re together.”

Foundations for Resistance

A self-described rebel, Bhattacharya is a groundbreaking dancer, choreographer, and cultural leader who has been redefining the dance scene in Toronto for over 20 years. Her unique style effortlessly incorporates her many influences, including folk dance, rock ’n roll, and Bharatnatyam, a codified Indian dance form.

Rebellion and feminism are frequent themes in her work. For Bhattacharya, it’s all about constant acts of resistance against the injustice she sees in the world and her own experiences. As a dancer who began working when very few people who looked like her commanded centre stage, she’s faced exotification, stereotyping, and criticism that her work is either not Indian enough or too Indian.

“It used to affect me a lot, and it would really trigger some direct responses,” Bhattacharya said. “This one reviewer commented on my use of hand gestures being ‘stereotypical’ in Indian dance, and so the next piece I did, I did in bondage gloves so you couldn’t see my hands.”

Another way she’s fighting the status quo is by creating her own dance company in 2008.

For over a decade, Nova Dance has been dedicated to working with artists from diverse dance forms, cultural backgrounds, body sizes, and ages.

“There’s been a lot of dance on stage that’s monochromatic, but I’m not looking to replace one dominant body with another dominant body,” Bhattacharya explained. “It’s about the diversity, the differences, and how they come together.”

© Emma Forhan

Dancing Through the Pandemic

Premiering this month at TO Live, Svāhā! has been profoundly shaped by the last two years. Bhattacharya describes the show as an offering of dance, music, and joy inspired by women and the act of gathering. The work is performed by 22 dancers trained in 29 dance forms, including Bharatanatyam, contemporary, Latin, hip hop, jazz, ballet, tap, and Limón.

“It’s really exciting to finally be working towards putting the show on stage and imagining people coming into theatres and having this live experience again… it’s a testament to the power of dance, music, and ritual to endure the challenges of our times,” Bhattacharya said.

While challenging, navigating the production of a live dance work during the pandemic also brought out some positive experiences. One step Nova Dance took was putting artists on the payroll to provide economic stability. Bhattacharya also said there was more flexibility for dancers dealing with pregnancy, injuries, and motherhood to participate and for everyone to extend more compassion towards each other.

“If you were having a pandemic breakdown and couldn’t be there, that was accepted,” she shared. “But it turned out that everyone wanted to keep coming because dancing together, even virtually, helped us stay connected. It helped us care for each other.”

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