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Choreographies of isolation: in conversation with Nova Bhattacharya and Kevin A. Ormsby
Monday, February 15, 2021 | Brannavy Jeyasundaram

In another timeline, Nova Bhattacharya and Kevin A. Ormsby would have premiered the largest productions of their careers at the crest of fall. Works that invited participation from artists across the globe, filled 3000-seat theatres, and brought a chorus of Black and brown bodies in motion. Bhattacharya, the Artistic Director of Nova Dance, was preparing to debut Svāhā — a pageant of dance, chant, and ritual performed by women at Meridian Hall. Ormsby, the Artistic Director of KasheDance, was set to debut a choreographic work with the National Ballet of Canada and the 10th-anniversary production of his company. When the pandemic hit Toronto, everything came to a halt. 

Suddenly, they were ushered into a sociological experiment with significant creative potential. As dance artists heavily dependent on experimentations of touch, Bhattacharya and Ormsby were forced to reimagine what it means to work. They shifted from building choreography to focusing on the mental well-being of their dancers. Furthermore, as mid-career artists who have relentlessly advocated for meaningful inclusion in Canada's arts sector, the pandemic has shifted their understanding of progress. Bhattacharya uses the vocabulary of Bharatanatyam, a South Indian classical style to build works that explores the interfaces between cultures and creative disciplines. Similarly, Ormsby traverses Afro-Caribbean diasporas through the language of dancehall, modern dance, and ballet. The recognition that they receive today as recipients of grants from federal and provincial arts institutions did not come easy.

Bhathacharya and Ormsby hail from Scarborough, Ontario, an area densely populated with immigrant communities and shrouded with stereotypical narratives of violence. Their upbringing in Scarborough and exposure to Eritrean aunties gossiping on the bus alongside Chinese elders going to church are inextricably linked to their work. Canada’s dance establishment has historically upheld Western European dance styles that can be neatly filed into marketable genres and have been reluctant to embrace their work. After decades of proving themselves worthy of a seat at the table, they ask themselves: what does it mean for me to be here and another person that looks like me to not?

In conversation, they recognize each other as old friends and allies with a shared history of place. Bhattacharya is leaning against her backyard door which reveals the crystal blue sky and half-bare maple tree. She sits comfortably in the darkness of her shadow. Ormsby is illuminated by the sun streaming through an adjacent window and at least four plant species frame his presence. One is deep green with pink veins and another has just begun to flower. We discuss the politics of space, our bodies as archives, and the function of dance within a period of mandated isolation.


How does your body feel at this moment?

Kevin A. Ormsby: My body feels like an accordion. It's doing choreography between emotions while also strategically and creatively planning. I made a decision, now two weeks ago, to take a break from my company's work until January. Everything was just way too uncertain and the dancers were looking for me to lead in a way that I couldn't possibly . So my body has held that tension because I live, breathe, and walk for my dancers. They have been with me for a number of years and I think about them before I think about myself. So it was really hard for me. The pandemic has allowed me to think about how much I hold in my body and the time we're in, given the Black Lives Matter movement, I realized how much I was also holding as someone who's very visible in so many spaces for the community. It's really hard to let it go. But I've learned to let it go and to actually be more about fortifying this body so that it can help support a community. I've learned a huge amount of lessons where that is concerned.

Nova Bhattacharya: The pandemic, like March 13th, the day it really hit Toronto coincided with my body going into an absolute health crisis, and in certain ways, the pandemic saved my life. When the doctor called and said, ‘all these levels have dropped, and you have to go in and get blood transfusions’, I let go for the first time. All the things that I had been carrying — the dancers, Svaha, its implications for racialized dance artists — were dissolved by the pandemic. 

I was able to be in nature during the period of rebuilding my health and it saved my life. Mother Earth saved my life. I feel very much the paradox of the times in my body because in addition to all this pain, since I started my practice again, I've been coming back to my dancer body. And now I'm like, ‘yeah, this is Nova Bhattacharya’s 51-year-old dancer body’ and it knows so much, it has so much to offer as we move through these times.

Nova, I know you were preparing for what would have been the largest production of your career, Svāhā, and Kevin you were working on a choreographic debut with the National Ballet of Canada — what has stoppage felt like? What has it taught you?

KO: So even before the National work, my company was in its 10th anniversary production to be performed at the end of May. And it just stopped. It literally just stopped. So it's been monumental in that particular way of thinking about a work that was supposed to be about time, place, and movement. It starts with an exhibition of Caribbean artifacts, which, again, our bodies are physical artifacts, you know, all these thematic things that would have ended up in a performance that never happened. And right now, it's figuring out how it happens contextually when it really, really, really requires audiences to be in a space. That beginning structure is not something that can be replaced online. 

So while I am thinking about how I will even begin to look at that for next year, it's taught me some really beautiful things. I think the most important thing it taught me was the value of the people that I work with. We stopped. And I just said, ‘well, you know, do you want to continue online?’ It wasn't about replicating what we do in the studio. We did a check in and then if we decided to move, we moved. We replicated rhythms, which were going to be replicated in the work. They sang it, beat it, did many things with it, and then we recorded it. We put it all together in a soundscape. You know, things that we'd never done before. And then they decided to take movement to it. They went into different spaces as much as they could by themselves and they created movement. We put it together as a response and did a writing practice which was about how we’re feeling in this particular moment in time. 

NB: My work was a work about gathering [laughs]. And because of the privilege of the funding from the National Arts Centre, and also just the way I run my organization, I made the choice to spend the money and invest in the dancers. We did this intense 80-hour process over May and I learned so much from them. It allowed us to do things that wouldn't have happened if we were in the studio preparing for performance. I had been teaching them all the material from solos of mine, to use as vocabulary in their movement, but now each of them was able to work on it as an independent solo. I could see the range of interpretation from one dancer who's going at it like a martial arts exercise to another dancer who has taken it into her world of narrative and movement. It gave me the opportunity to learn things about my work, which I hadn't had before because of all the activism, all the presence, all the work that needed to be done to create a context for us to be able to make the work that was in our hearts. It took so long that we didn't have the power of really looking at what we had made and what we contributed.

I learned that the work is so much about the way artists come together and share in vulnerability. When we were attempting performance in the virtual space this connective tissue has grown between us, that somehow, even in this virtual space, through the rituals of our dance practices, we were able to connect. When we're able to be in spaces with humans again, watch out. It's the love, connection, joy, and celebration of the memory that is going to come pouring into the theater. The audience is going to have such an energy bath. What that work was going to say pre-pandemic and what the work can offer post-pandemic is very different. Before, there was a little bit of a mic drop factor behind taking this work and going into that white space and saying, ‘yeah, we're here.’ But now Svāhā can really be about the act of gathering and what that offers the community. The work can be about the healing that needs to happen in the world right now.

KO: Yes, yes. And I'm championing that because I think it's also about presence. When we started back in September, before we went to lockdown again, just seeing how the dancers walked in and the current with which they were moving was beautiful. That's something that wasn't afforded to us before. We were trying to replicate a Eurocentric performance standard which innately wasn’t Caribbean. Space will mean something completely different post-COVID. Now I'm just like, ‘No, this is the space you walk into. We gon’ do this. And it will not be like that, it will be like this.’  It will be what it's supposed to be for in creation for racialized bodies. And in particular, from a Black company with Black choreography looking at the impact of Caribbean lives on Canadian culture. 



Kevin Ormsby. Photograph by Troy Schuster. 


 Nova Bhattacharya, Mascura, 1999. Photograph by Cylla von Tiedeman.



You both said your idea of space has shifted over the course of the pandemic particularly the space that you were trying to create with your productions. How has it shifted? 

KO: I think people see artists, Black artists, who come into space differently. We also experience theater and arts differently. And so for me, it's going to be demanding that the space I move into is going to be able to transform into a Caribbean space. The idea that you're co-creating in space is something that has been very much missing from a lot of the performance arts spaces. So how are you able to influence how people are participating in that space? How do we give people permission to actually inhabit in space? For me it’s being stronger and firmer in the beauty that is the art forms for which we are creating, we know we abstract them, but what does it mean to root artists and root people in the spaces we're in. 

NB: Because Svāhā was inspired by the act of gathering, it's going to be radically shifted by what society is going through right now. Some of the ideas I had for it such as the body choir on the stage, I think that kind of array and choreography will have a very different impact on the viewer than it would have now. It might seem a bit aggressive or overly assertive, if all of a sudden all these people are in the space together. How are we going to rebuild that sense of safety that many people in a space together can produce? 

I've also been thinking about the media space or the public space, and with that too, there's a shift now. Nova Dance is primarily people of colour, and we owe debts to Black artists whose activism allowed us to exist. We’re in this moment where enough literal blood of our fellow human beings was spilled, is being spilled, on the pavement, that now suddenly we can name racism as artists in a way we weren't allowed to before. 

We're artists, we live and communicate our experiences and now, we don't have to try and compartmentalize racist experiences as one part of our life. We can acknowledge how much it is integrated into who we are as human beings, and therefore, obviously, in our work. Dance is supposed to connect us to our hearts and our souls. And that's the work that Kevin and I are able to do now.

Do you worry about your art being co-opted by Canadian Arts institutions or rather, the enhanced acceptance of your art co-opting a movement for Black and Indigenous liberation?

KO: It's a really, really serious concern. Will affirmation [from Canadian Arts institutions] be co-opted as part of a movement that will no longer be after the pandemic? I'm in many too many circles, where I see the replication of work which to me seems like doing things because there’s the money to do things. What is the quality of the work that you're doing at this time to support the possibility of a better future? [Canadian arts institutions] need to ask themselves: What are we doing in this moment that is not replicating the past. And how can we as racialized artists hold them to that?

NB: Recently, a festival, in collaboration with a major national organisation, invited Nova Dance to remount a piece of repertoire from 2000. I said yes, but the one thing that I insisted on was that I wanted to have a meeting with the artistic leads of both presenters prior to and after the performance. I said in my email that I haven't done it before but this is what Nova Dance is going to do when we're working with white-led organizations. And even typing the words ‘when Nova dance works with white LED organizations’ felt like a splash of acid reflux.

People like Kevin and I, who have been fighting the fight and speaking the truth to power, the pandemic is still putting us in this whole new place of responsibility. But what is the impact of going into [Canadian arts institutions] and our work being a part of their programming? And are there potential harms that are being done? Just because they're hiring us, they don't get points they should have been hiring us all along – this is the most multicultural city in the world. They need to create the conditions for us to feel like our work is being respected when they program us. 

Both of you have intersecting geographies, you were raised in Scarborough and are alumni of Lester B. Pearson Highschool. Are there spaces you have returned to over the pandemic?

NB: Well, I'm gonna try and demonstrate one [stands up]. I feel like I've dressed like I did in high school — I’ve got the jeans, the plaid shirt, and the cut-off denim jacket.. 

The lockdown was a huge reminder of when I was isolated by years of chronic migraines, so I found myself returned to that emotional space. And the way that dance was what held me to the world. When the pandemic happened, I really viscerally felt like I was back in that time period. The  first sort of thing that went off in my head  was ‘two years, I can do this for two years.’ I was just like, ‘yeah, lockdown, okay, I've practiced that already.’ 

What I've done with the company now is we're doing 20 hours a month. We come together, we get online, and we're having these processes. It sends me back to that migraine phase and also a period of my life where I was very nomadic and living in tiny little apartments. I was doing work in these weird little spaces and reimagining classical vocabulary within different kinds of spatial limitations. It’s like this deep dive back into my own choreographic process, which is allowing me to communicate my movement, vocabulary, intentions and aesthetics to the dancers in a much clearer way.

KO: Speaking of Malvern, my parents live in Malvern so after this call I'm returning to that physical space. Every time I return, I pass Pearson and I'm reminded of the beautiful lessons I learned about diverse cultures being in space together. It’s really fueled me to think about some of the artists who are still around and have influenced my career in that space. I've been reaching out a lot more to them and asking them what sort of support they need in their career because that physical space has reminded me of the value of the work that I've done and could do coming out of a pandemic. 

I was supposed to start, after finishing the 10th anniversary season, a solo work which I have not done at all in maybe six years. So part of it for me now is also an emotional space of a body that's turning 45 in January that does not dance like it did at 24. It's also a very emotional thing for me, because I'm looking at the impact  of the physical body, of a Black body, you know, in so many ways. And it's emotional, because I'm realizing that I'm an artist of privilege. I'm a Black artist of privilege, you know, I'm tearing up because for me, every time I walk into space it's always about why other Black artists are not in that particular experience of space as well. Why do people see artists not experiencing the same things that I've experienced?

The last thing I’ve returned to is a cultural space. I'm realizing something that a dear colleague of mine said, which is to really think about the power and the influence of the vocabulary from where you grew up and how to amplify that for other people in space. And so for me, it's how to harness the cultural sensitivity and sensibilities that we know exist in our bodies around space. Because we actually experience space differently. People see people, you know, at the very end, at the very core of it, we need to be amongst family and friends and we need to be eating, laughing, and have music playing. We need that because that's how we also actualize our creative space as well.

NB: Kevin, 45 is the best because the young ones don't think you’re a dinosaur and the old ones don't think you're a complete twit.

The pandemic has brought upon this sort of public choreography where social distance measures regulate proximity and space as dance artists, what has this felt like? 

KO:   I think creatively, it's challenging. Although, it's an invitation for me to think beyond the intensity of two bodies close together and that's something I've been wrapping my head around, it's like, how do I still use movement and language to communicate the closeness that I know I love in dance? But I do believe there's a choreography of space. It’s interesting for me to see someone walking down the street and suddenly they're in the middle of the street and there's a car coming; they’re willing to risk getting struck by a car instead of negotiating the sidewalk. But I think that's part of the dance. The sensibility that I think many people are coming to is really understanding the impact of their bodies in space.  As artists, we seespace differently. We experience it differently. We're always looking at it in a time / space continuum where we're like, let’s shrink it, let's broaden it, let's open it, and most others are just like, let's be in it. But for people to collectively understand the potential of space, I think it is a beautiful thing. It's also a concerning thing because I do believe coming out of [the pandemic] attitudes of fear and surveillance are being embedded in our genomes and in our genealogy. 

The other part of this is, I'm a hugger. But when you're working with bodies who are now at risk, that becomes a concern. I can't hug my dancers. It's just not the same. It's not the way we're used to experiencing space. I can't wait to get back to being among dancers and conduct my practices centered on negotiating space where we start far apart and move closer and closer together, and eventually so close that we're having to curve unto, into, and through each other's bodies. It's an interesting moment to understand some of the joys that we had as artists, of being really close to each other in space.

NB: Early in the pandemic, I was watching people navigate space while taking walks and was finding it quite beautiful and resonant. And then there was the moment where things were ramping up and my own instinct was to turn away and walk in a different direction. It was really making me anxious.

Right now, I'm not really working on choreography. I'm working on relationships. I'm working on dancers’ mental health. I do think there's some amazing potential right now for immersive technology and dance, and I'm inspired by that, but in terms of what I actually have access to it feels out of reach.

I do keep thinking about exactly what Kevin's saying on how distance and paranoia are getting wired into our systems. In the summer, I was serving a few dance artists food outdoors and there was this tremendous social awkwardness, because nobody could help me. It was like, ‘no, you all have to sit there and I'm going to do all the work of figuring out how to serve things in the most sanitized way.’ This frustration rests in our brain and our tissue, and that's why I know that dance is going to have such a resurgence and important role in the world. Because dancers are the ones who have been practicing and have a specialized ability to take our emotions to a place of joy and connection. We're going to be needed. So you rest, Kevin.

KO: I’m ready for it.

Do you miss touch and what has the absence of touch ushered in?

NB: One of the dancers who has been working with the company for a couple of years now, Supriya Nayak, she and her husband were moving away to New Haven and it was during a period where we did an outdoor distanced visit. It was just so bizarre to be saying goodbye to a human being who I have danced with and to not be able to feel her heartbeat next to mine in a hug. We did a namaskaram and we felt the electricity between us, but it's just not the same. It feels like a piece of you is missing. I absolutely, even though I live with my partner and have access to it on a daily basis, miss touch. I feel it in my fingertips. I think that too, is going to be in performance and in creation within the choreographies that we're making. There's going to be so much power and potential. And I think even in solo material that we're working on right now, like even the act of holding your own hand or putting pressure on your own body, shows how much those physical interactions with flesh, bone, and veins makes a difference to how you feel. As artists we've got so much fertile ground to work with now.

KO: I think Nova, you’ve said it all. I miss the warmth of touch. I'm really now aware of individual touch in the sense of care. I'm always holding my body in ways I never did before. I'm using the opportunity with a lack of touch from others to do a sort of individual check-in on my own body. I’m also finding unique ways to acknowledge others, like the shoe tap. I enjoy using it as a choreography and a way of reimagining what touch can possibly be. 

When thinking about absence and presence, over the past six months we've witnessed extreme isolation followed by mass mobilization for Black liberation. And I'm wondering, in your observation or participation in protest, are there specific physical memories or images that have remained ingrained? 

KO: As part of a protest for Black Lives Matter, Rodney Diverlus (co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Toronto) is a good friend of mine and he was just like: ‘I want dancers to animate the space.’ What was really beautiful about that particular protest was having this long line of bodies holding a rope six feet apart from each other outside of Toronto police headquarters  and having the arts as an integral part of protest. Because we're dancers, we always want to put things in moving space, but the height of the stance for me in that moment was something I noticed, and I realized just how beautiful it was to see so many people just standing. It brings me back to something I use with Kashedance, which is a Jamaican phrase called Tanuppanyuhmahla , which basically translates to, stand up on your own two feet or in your being that have been destined or given to you. It was one of those moments that meant so much because there was movement and it was just people in space, doing that thing of affirming their stance. That's a stance. And when you put a little lean into it? I'm going into choreography [laughs].

NB: It’s just what Kevin said, having seen that footage of that protest and the use of pink especially, a colour that’s associated with pleasure — it was so powerful. There are so many artists that are at the heart of this movement and it shows.

I want to end with a question posed by New York-based theatre artist Diane Exavier, she says: Care is about very earthly things: bodies, land. There is a more immediate consequence with flesh. And so if I call the body to attention, what does that require? 

NB: Optimism. 

KO: You see trees in nature, they're always going for the sun, no matter where the darkness is they’ll lean, they’ll bend, they’ll twist; going towards the sun. They’ll arrive in the space where they need the things for them to survive. That's an awareness. And so the pandemic has really brought me back to that sense of awareness around the things that I require, which is nature, family, and friends. 

The above conversation was conducted by Brannavy Jeyasundaram, a writer and Bharatanatyam artist based in Toronto.

Cover image from left to right: Kevin Ormsby. Photograph by Troy Schuster; Nova Bhattacharya, Mascura, 1999. Photograph by Cylla von Tiedeman.

Special thanks to Nova Bhattacharya and Kevin A. Ormsby for sharing generously throughout this conversation.