Meet the Artist: Nova Bhattacharya

The Meet The Artist series highlights amazing and talented performing arts professionals from diverse backgrounds. To celebrate Asian Heritage Month, we are launching our Asian Heritage Month Artist Spotlight to highlight artists in the performing sector from Asian communities. We encourage you to engage with these artists with an open mind, and to remember that starting a relationship with an artist can be something smaller than a mainstage show such as inviting them to lead a workshop, sit on a panel, or collaborate with an artist local to you.

This month we invite you to meet featured artist Nova Bhattacharya. Nova Bhattacharya is an award-winning, barrier-breaking, artist and cultural leader based in Tkaronto. Her creations are filled with lush, vivid images that invite the viewer on a journey of imagination. Her creative inspiration is found in her hybridity of born and raised in Canada-Bengali-ness, and immersion in global movement traditions that are carried in bodies of the diaspora. She’s always been a rebel breaking rules, reinterpreting traditions, and reinventing rituals. In 2008 she founded Nova Dance a space for creation, conversations, and collaborations. 

Watch the Interview Here: 

Thumbnail of Nova Bhattacharya, looking away from the camera with an arm raised in the air. Text on the photograph reads: Asian Heritage Month Artist Spotlight - Nova Bhattacharya.

Transcription for the Interview: 

Sydney: Hello, everyone. My name is Sydney. My pronouns are she/her and I am the Digital Marketing and Communications Coordinator at Ontario Presents. I am an Asian woman with long hair and I am wearing a black dress and for this month’s Meet the Artist Spotlight, I am joined today by dance artist and choreographer extraordinaire Nova Bhattacharya. Before I begin the interview, I just want to remind everyone that captions are available for this interview.

You can find a transcript of this interview on our website, link in the description box below. Nova, welcome, and thank you so much for joining us today for our Meet the Artist spotlight. We’re going to go ahead and begin with a quick icebreaker question. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and Nova Dance?

Nova: Sure. I’m going to start off by sharing a little ritual that always helps me ground myself. And once I’ve done that, I feel like my answers make more sense and my interactions with people make more sense. So I’m just going to start and put my hand on my heart and listen to my heartbeat. And when I feel connected into that rhythm, I’m going to make a sound.

I let that sound rain down on my body and I think about a circle, and I imagine being in a circle with humans and what I have to offer and what I can learn. I make a gesture of reaching and think about reaching as a way of offering help as well as asking for help. And I think about reaching beyond myself and beyond the circle that we’re in and thinking about the people who might be missing.

I inhale through my fingertips and let the air flow through my body. And in whatever way makes logical sense to me today, I try and make a new connection with Mother Earth, and as I make that connection with Mother Earth, I bring my hand to my eyes in a gesture of respect and in thinking about Mother Earth, I think about where I am and T’Karonto where the water meets the trees. In making this gesture of respect, I think about the fact that we are on stolen land and what intentions and ways we can make differences today. With my hands above the head, I connect myself to the universe. With my hands on my forehead, I think about ancestors and teachers. And with my hands and my heart, I think about the humanity in the soul.

And this ritual, it comes from Bharatnatyam, my training in this Indian classical dance style, which I started when I was seven years old. And it’s a performative ritual that is meant to invite the audience into the space of the performer and also pay respect to Mother Earth’s, the god and thoughts in all directions, ancestors, teachers, peers, the audience, and taking that ritual and kind of pushing and pulling at it and feeding it with knowledge I gained from being on this land and from Indigenous artists and many other elders, from many other cultures.

You know, it’s evolved. And this principle of the idea of an invitation from one person to many to go on a shared journey of the imagination is really something that’s at the heart of all my work. And in terms of Nova dance, I always say that I’ve been making this company, this organization in the same way that I make dance works.

So in the same way that I collaborate with people, with lighting designers, with music composers, with the dancers themselves, with the company, I’m also collaborating with a diverse group of individuals, and we’re a really people-centric organization trying to meet people at the right moment in their journey. So when we can intersect, how can we work better together?

And it’s, you know, we, we’re just 15 years old, Nova Dance. So in some ways, people see us as an established company. And I keep saying we’re just hitting our rebellious teenage years.

Sydney: Wonderful. I wanted to kind of circle back quickly about your mention of Bharatnatyam, and I notice that in your profile you mentioned that you’ve trained in Bharatnatyam from the age of seven, and it’s something that you continue to use in terms of the movement, the recitation, theatre and mathematics, mathematically complex rhythms of the dance style to reinterpret traditions and to tell new stories. And I was wondering if you could share with us a little bit about how do you use Bharatnatyam in your work?

Nova: So I started training in the art form when I was seven years old here in Canada with one of the legends of Canadian dance, Menaka Thakkar. But I stopped training when I was 16 years old because it just wasn’t the right fit for me at the time, and I wanted to do other things. But when I went back to dance, that was the knowledge I had in my body.

And I had these cassette tapes from my graduation performance. So that repertoire really became just my own personal training ground by living inside of that repertoire. But also I wanted to do new things and I was trying to find ways to explore. And I also, I wanted to stay in physical shape. But when you’re dancing on your own outside of a dance community, because my journeying and my trajectory wasn’t exactly the what the Indian dance establishment was looking for.

So, I was alone and doing the kinds of steps and the kind of training that’s in Bharatnatyam on your own is just a huge slog. So I had to find a way to make it fun for myself. And I created what I now call playlists for practice, and it’s a series of songs, rock songs, Hindi movie songs, you know, just a really eclectic playlist.

And I would create repetition exercises inside of those songs to make the technique fun for myself. And also the technique has these two strands. It has Abhinaya storytelling transmission of emotions and also abstract dance, which is about the rhythmic complexities and the math. And I’ve always been trying to overlap those two techniques and find a way that both things can happen at the same time

So doing these repetition exercises to rock and roll music also gave me lyrics and also gave me that connection to storytelling and passion and feelings and emotions while I was also doing these physical exercises. So that’s kind of the basics of how I started branching off the way I have and now when I work with other dancers, I always start with this invitation to make your own namaskaram, your own nine move namaskaram, thinking about these words, putting yourself into it.

We also do the playlists for practice, so everyone’s training in these simple folds and unfolds at the body along with the idea of putting meaning into the movement and then just ultimately other tiny little things like in classical Bharatnatyam, there is this little neck micro isolation that we do and it’s called Attami.

And I will say to dancers, “Now take that and put it into your wrists and put it into your fingers and put it into your shoulders and just take it all over your body”, or there’s another really foundational rule in Bharatnatyam that where your hand goes, your eyes must follow and where your eyes go, the soul follows.

And in that place is the flavour of the dance. And also in that, when I move it around, so it’s called the Drishti that wherever Drishti goes to follow your hands, and I will say, “Okay, it’s not just in your eyes. What if that sight is at the top of your head? What if that sight is coming out of your elbow?

What if that sight is coming out of your back?” So, yeah, like, really just embrace, like sometimes people will describe my work as being really out of the box. And I’ll say, “You know what? Sometimes I just dive deeper into the box, like I find this one thing and I’m like, Okay, what else can we do with it?

What else can we do with it? What else can we do with it?” Or I’ll take an idea and just keep abstracting it. So the heart of the idea is there and it goes somewhere else. And in addition to Bharatnatyam, in addition to the way I brought it together with rock and roll, I also spent many years studying Butoh Japanese dance theatre art form.

I’ve also, I’m a dance omnivore. I just spent three months working with Dainty Smith on a burlesque project. And then yesterday I went to take a dance class with Zab Maboungou, who has created her own technique based on Congolese ancestral knowledge about dance. So I just yeah, I love everything there is to do about dance. I’ve lost track of the question now.

Oh, it was how I use Bharatnatyam. So yeah. So I bring the things that I know. I bring them together with all the things I’ve learned and accumulated along the way. And I just embrace it and take it in new directions.

Sydney: Yeah. Thank you so much for kind of guiding me through that journey of your studies as a dance performer. I really like that bit about how you take lyrics from rock songs and you kind of use this guiding point for like physical vocabulary. It’s kind of cool to see like different genres and like different art forms, kind of blend together to kind of make a cohesive piece.

And I kind of want to talk a little bit more about your dance projects, and I know that your projects center around a variety of topics from addressing race on stage to your own lifelong relationship with chronic migraines and experiences of pain and resilience. And I’m curious to hear more about your relationship with the arts as both a form of advocacy, but also as a form of storytelling.

Nova: With storytelling, one of the things, well, I’m obsessed with storytelling at the moment. I felt I spent the last five years working on a piece that was inspired by the rituals of gathering, which was a very strange thing to be talking about during a pandemic. And every time I would talk about it on some Zoom panel, I would just break into this weird, nervous laughter.

And now but now, having created that work, I’m really just on this on this dance as a storytelling art form, which we all know. But there’s just there’s so many ways that dance tells the stories of our times and it’s in who’s dancing those stories and who’s telling those stories. And, you know, when I watch the Alvin Ailey Company for so long and I see those dancers come and inhabit the stage, and there’s just these two levels of storytelling going on, like there are the stories of works like Revelations and where we’re seeing the journey of of a people into a new space.

But then there’s also dances that are completely abstraction and don’t have a narrative. But still, when you see a volume of bodies of color on stage, the story is there. You can’t get away from it. And one of the things I like to talk about a lot with my dancers is moving beyond storytelling and really embodying story being that because I work with abstract narrative in my work, I’m not trying to get people from A to Z with a particular story or a plot.

I’m trying to create a work that has images, that you, you know, that you take in the images that might, you know, the next time you’re on a beach looking at a sunset, you know, a dancer might float into your mind, but images that a person can take with them and that have a logic in the way that they’re sequenced so that everybody can take it, the way they need to take it.

So I’m always saying that there are no stories and there are infinite stories. And so for the dancers and for myself, I’m trying to find a way to do more than tell or show. I’m saying let’s be whatever this moment is.

And in terms of, you know, the migraine, inspired by migraine piece, Infinite Storms, that was, you know, as an artist, that was a real turning point for me because for many years I had chronic migraines, and everyone who I’ve danced with and worked with knew this. And people would say to me, “You should make a piece and “You should make a piece.” And I’d just be like, “Why would I make a piece about pain? Who would want to go see a piece of the pain? Why would I want to relive the pain that I’m in?”

But then I realized that this migraine condition is something that so many people have and also migraines have so much in common with depression, fibromyalgia, like there’s just a whole myriad of of things where the experience of the person converges. And as an artist, I was like, “Right, it’s my job to give a voice to this through my art”, and if that will help somebody else who sees it make a connection or when we when we did that show, we were working with a neurologist at Women’s College Hospital.

So we were doing talks and people were coming and sometimes people were saying, “Oh, you know, I live with somebody with migraines. And this show gave me a little bit more of an insight into how I can be there for them.” And then also, the show wasn’t about migraines. It was inspired by the idea, and it became more of a metaphor for the strength of the individual and the power of community and how we take care of each other.

So yeah, like I just think that the storytelling that we can do through our art and through our dance and by taking space with our art, we’re shifting people’s awarenesses, and especially right now, like I really think dance is an art form that should be positioned right at the forefront of this rebuilding society that we find ourselves in, because it is, you know, we were all isolated and we were all like just looking at these Zoom screens for how long? And yeah, so I think everybody needs to feel that connection, to feel the heartbeat, to feel the joy of movement, to feel the joy of being together and dance is a multidisciplinary art form. It’s movement, it’s music, it’s theatre there. You know, there are many people working in narrative work and I think dance is, it’s like, it is really like this ultimate tool in in the world for advocating for how the arts benefit our health and how it makes us feel better, how it makes us stand taller or how it makes us engage with the world.

Sydney: I completely agree. There’s definitely a power in connection, in seeing not only bodies on stage and having those bodies embody the story itself, but to also be in a space where you’re sitting amongst other bodies and participating in the silence and the creation of this art. And on the topic of dance work, I kind of want to quickly segue into your upcoming dance work Svāhā! which uses the universal language of movement to gather people together in a synchronous experience that’s inspired by women building community through acts of celebration and mourning and worship. What can audiences expect from this production?

Nova: Joy. And it gives me great pleasure to say that because when I was making it, that was one of the, you know, the prickling at the back of your head of like, okay, what if joy becomes cheesy? Or what if we can’t get the performers to join in an authentic way? But we did it. We did it. We came out of the pandemic in March of 2022, and we and 22 performers.

We found a way to reconnect. We found a way to really learn from each other, because those 22 performers in their bodies, there were more than 29 different dance vocabularies on stage. There was a generational spread from 16 to 54. And yeah, like we just we found a way to connect and we found a way to get to that place of joy.

And it absolutely, we played for three nights in Toronto, and every night the audience was on their feet at the end. And it really, it, you know, there’s recurring themes of like one to many ,so a soloist to then a huge swath of dancers on stage. And it really, as I said in the before times when I started the work, it was really inspired by this idea of acts of gathering and rituals.

And I was sort of more on a track of choreographically investigating, you know, how we can bring the dancers and the audience to a place of synchrony by doing movement together and repetitive movement and taking the same movement and giving it different emotions. And then through the pandemic, and then once we got back into the studio, the work really just it transformed and became a celebration of dance itself as the ultimate ritual of gathering.

Sydney: That’s so awesome. I love that the first word that came out of your mouth was just pure joy. And I love just focusing on the emotional impact of the work because that’s really what stays with the audience at the end, kind of like what you mentioned with audiences leaving with not only images in their head, but also emotion that they’ve derived from being in that space, getting to witness that performance in real time.

I want to quickly segue into your larger dance work and your career as a dance artist. And I know that your work has taken you all the way around the world from Canada to Germany, India, Japan, UK, Uganda and your productions have also won several awards and nominations for artistic achievement. Do you have any further goals that you’d really like to achieve or any products that you would love to be a part of?

Nova: You know, during the pandemic, as we all dove into digital expressions, I actually developed quite a bit of a taste for it. Like I did a couple of small film projects. I did one early film project, which I like. It was an entirely Zoom loop thing, and I had footage of me dancing on the roof of my building and I was playing it on my phone while there was a Zoom thing.

And then I also had the tremendous privilege and joy of working with Oscar nominated director Barbara Willis Sweete on a livestream that was produced by Citadel and Compagnie. And so I was doing two solos and there were five cameras, and I had to learn my own choreography in ways that I just I never would because when I do solos, I’m a soloist on stage, and the other stage manager might be take a couple of cues from me, but that’s it.

But when you’re dancing with five cameras, you know, you have to be on it. And anyway, those those projects really did give me a taste for dance filmmaking and the possibilities and having that just a whole new set of considerations to, to wrap yourself in as you’re as you’re making art. So I’m definitely interested in doing more of that.

I have through the course of my career, worked in theatre a couple of times, and I really would love to create something inside a theatre organization that has, you know, resources where you can go in and be the creator, and there’s a props department if you want to play with something. And, you know, so I’m not just going to Winners and or Home Hardware and coming in with coily hoses and saying, “Let’s try this.”

Although those things are sometimes really amazing too. Um, yeah. So film, working inside theatre, I’m a collaborator. There’s just like so many people, when we take, we sit, we see each other in certain dance context and it’s like “One day, one day we’re going to do something, right?” We’re just going to say it and it will come true. So yeah, yeah, many things.

Sydney: Many things on the horizon. That sounds super fun, especially that part where you were talking about, I guess the difference between like dancing solo versus dancing in front of five cameras, because I imagine that dancing in front of cameras would be different from dancing on stage. Mostly because when you’re on stage, it’s only kind of one perspective of the work.

But I imagine with five cameras, you probably account for the different angles and the different perspectives and the movements of the camera as well. So that was really cool bit you shared. As we’re kind of wrapping up the interview, is there anything else that you would like to share with our audiences? Do you have any upcoming shows that we should look out for?

Nova: So in the month of May, at the end of the month in Toronto, we’re working with an arts organization called Jamii on the Esplanade, who does a lot of really important site specific and community based work. And we’re actually bringing a little excerpt of this larger works for her. And we’re going to be in David Crombie Park and it’s going to be over three nights May 26, 27, 28.

And I think it’s just it’s going to be a lot of fun and we’re going to, so there’ll be this excerpt that the performers will do. And then one of the dancers in the cast, Mel Hart, is going to run a CYPHER in the park, so inviting everyone to dance with us. And if you show up early, we’re also going to do playlists for practice and you can warm up with us and then the next big thing is in July, we’re going to be in Vancouver with the full work with the full cast.

Sydney: Awesome. So many great things to look out for. Well, thank you so much, Nova, for taking the time to sit down with us and to participate in our Meet the Artist spotlight. You can find Nova’s social media channels and the description box below and at the bottom of the transcript for this video. Thank you so much for watching this video. And we look forward to seeing you in our next Meet the Artist Spotlight.

Nova: Thank you.


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