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World Views

Tapping into wanderlust in its seventh season (and most ambitious one yet), Fall for Dance North (FFDN) took audiences on an expansive journey to Bangalore, Havana, and London through its Signature Program, a three-part dance film conceived by Ilter Ibrahimof and Indo-Canadian director Vikram Dasgupta.

Siphe (L) and Mthuthuzeli November in “My Mother's Son.” Photograph by Skye Weiss

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Available as a digital program from October 13 to November 5 with one in-person screening at Meridian Hall in Toronto, the film featured three global dance works: the first act was the epitome of Indian classical dance in Surupa Sen’s Lalita Lavanga, filmed on lush temple grounds in southern Indian; the second was a kaleidoscopic contemporary work Bloom created for Malposa Dance Company by Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton, filmed in an eighteenth century courtyard in Old Havana; and lastly, the duet My Mother’s Son from South African choreographer Mthuthuzeli November of Ballet Black with his brother and National Ballet of Canada principal dancer Siphe November in the crumbling hall of London’s Battersea Arts Centre.

The three works couldn’t have been more different. Despite this, Dasgupta, who has previously directed shorts on Canadian artists Michael Snow and Peggy Baker as well as the feature length dance documentary Beyond Moving on Siphe November, did well to unify the 50-minute program. His inobtrusive filming style and minimal camera angles furnished a full experience of the choreography, unburdened by cinematic affectation. Sensitive and confident, Dasgupta intuitively melds dance, film, and documentary modes.

Nrityagram Dance Village by Karthik Venkatraman

Act I of the film opens with a sun-speckled forest and the warm yellow stone of temple walls at the Nrityagram Dance Village in Bangalore, a school and residence where young women are taught the traditions of Odissi, one of the oldest forms of Indian classical dance. Footage of women from the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble as they go about daily life and rehearse in the village weaves a complete picture of an ancient dance style rooted in Hindu spiritual life.

Lalita Lavanga is performed as a duet by artistic director and choreographer Surupa Sen with ensemble member Pavithra Reddy. The dance is based on a medieval poem about divine and erotic love for Krishna, in which two lovers, brimming with desire, search for each other in the forest. There is magic in the stage setting—a rotund pavilion in stone sits within a garden of flowering trees—and from the first suspended notes of the bansuri flute, I am immediately enthralled.

Odissi dance is often described as having a sculpturesque quality, as though a stone figure from the temple walls has just come to life. There is perceptible restraint in the movements, as tradition dictates. But through the formalism, Sen and Reddy sing with poetry. In their curving artistry and an enliveningly kittenish aspect, the two dancers endow Odissi’s worship of the feminine with depth and genius. The love story is largely told in brilliant minutiae: flourishes of the wrists, blossoming hand figures, and eyes that dazzle between serpentine heads. Measured pauses in Sen’s choreography allow viewers to absorb each posture before it transforms, revealing a precise design that flows like calligraphy.

Malpaso Dance Company in “Bloom” by Aszure Barton. Photograph by Todd Rosenberg

Travelling about 10,000 miles west to Havana, Cuba, the world premiere Bloom brings together 11 dancers of the Malpaso Dance Company in the courtyard of the Wifredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art. As in the first act, the architectural details come first—the camera leads us through an arcade, immersing us in its deep blue painted ceiling, and we emerge into an airy courtyard edged in arches and potted palms. This is how we know we’re in a new place.

Bloom is a respite in dance, unfolding in patient repetition and at a sleepy pace. The first section relies on the multiplication of a single movement: a dancer’s softening chest and the body’s gentle release backwards to assume a new direction. Starting with two dancers, the group slowly grows as more join in with the same soft movements.

That is as much of a feeling of progression as Barton’s choreography allows. Set to a few tracks of bare trumpeting by Ambrose Akinmusire and with dancers dressed plainly in rehearsal clothes, Bloom has nothing of a performance in it. Casual and at times, vacantly expressed, the piece possesses the energy of a slouch. Even in a slightly more varied section where a dancer wearing a yellow t-shirt extracts an arabesque and sets off group combos with legs swinging en l’air, the dance firmly sustains its mildness. It would be amiss to judge the dancers’ merit in such an unassuming work. What then earns attention are the gently evolving group formations, which we have the pleasure of seeing from above. While these moments of inescapable calm may lull our senses, Bloom remained troublingly oblique.

Siphe (front) and Mthuthuzeli November in “My Mother's Son.” Photograph by Skye Weiss

Fortunately, there was still one act to go and it promised to be emotionally redeeming. The final work in the Signature Program was the world premiere of My Mother’s Son by Mthuthuzeli November, danced with his brother, Siphe. As a kind of reunion in dance and sequel to the documentary Beyond Moving, it is the first time the brothers have performed together since their childhood and leaving South Africa to pursue dance careers on different continents. In the grand hall of the Battersea Arts Centre, the Novembers give a charged performance that reverberates with strength, vulnerability, and the weight of familial bonds.

Speaking to the Novembers on Zoom ahead of the premiere, Mthuthuzeli tells me more about his concept for the piece, in which he explores “a feeling of the past, present, and the future together as brothers.” “We wanted to establish this idea of being an entity, but singular at any moment. [Siphe’s] there doing his own thing, and I'm here doing my own thing. But we are able to carry each other from afar,” he explains.

There are moments in My Mother’s Son that feel symbolic of that individuality, but also the brothers’ physical separation from home and each other. Closeup and in the foreground, Mthuthuzeli carries a tense interiority, moving with eyes closed to the camera, while blurred behind him and nearly out of frame, Siphe appears distant and tremoring, inscribing a small circle around himself. But there are equally many images of mutual support: Mthuthuzeli lays prone in a backward bend, his head cradled in Siphe’s hands as they walk in reverse; they take turns lifting each other, one body completely relaxed atop another; and we see them joining hands and running, as though meeting their future together.

In conversation, Siphe relays how the duet channels the “physicality of embrace.” As he remarks, a main thread throughout the work is “the emotion of being held, literally embraced, and understood without much having to be said . . . that's a connection that I think we have, not just in the piece, but in life as well.” When I ask the two about their process, Siphe alludes to the little rehearsal time they had by calling up a memory from childhood. “We used to make works like five minutes before going on stage,” he says. Swimming in the recollection, Mthuthuzeli remarks how creating My Mother’s Son “felt like a more refined version of that.” Then adds, “It felt like a coming home.”

Moving us geographically and for others, bringing them closer to home, FFDN’s Signature Program delivered an applause-worthy array of filmic collaborations between artists in Canada and the global south. As this festival inevitably always does, it gave us new perspectives and cracked open the world of dance a little more.

Josephine Minhinnett

Jo is an artsworker and writer from Toronto. She graduated with an M.A. in Photographic Preservation from Ryerson University and has worked in museums and archives across Canada and the U.S. In the field of dance, she is interested in creative practices that challenge traditional ideas of performance. Jo trained at Canada’s National Ballet School and the École Supérieure de Danse de Cannes Rosella Hightower.



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