KSHETRAM - DANCING THE DIVINE choreography by Lata Pada. Presented by Sampradaya Dance Creations and Harbourfront's NextSteps at the Premiere Dance Theatre (207 Queens Quay West). Friday and Saturday (June 15-16), 8 pm, matinee Saturday 2 pm. $20-$30. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
Did you know there are more than 50 Hindu temples in the GTA? Lata Pada does. And she's probably been in each one, sussing out its potential as a place to perform bharatanatyam, the classical Indian dance she's helped put on the Toronto map with her Sampradaya Dance Creations company.
"There's a new temple opening up off Highway 427," she tells me, as excited as a young girl.
"I hope you get to see it someday. It's magnificent. It's made of Turkish limestone, marble. They brought in craftsmen from India to make it."
Pada's newest work, Kshetram (the "k" is silent), won't be performed in a temple - they're generally too intimate and can't be lit in a way that's up to the standards of most modern dance performances.
But Pada is determined to bring the experience of visiting Indian temples to her audience.
"Two years ago I visited several temples that I used to visit in my childhood," she tells me on the phone from her studio. "And I realized that my approach to the temples, the lens that I was now looking at them through, was very different. I saw the relationship between dance, music, poetry, sculpture and literature, and found the temples to be a fascinating locus for all these arts."
Pada explains that much of the centuries-old bharatanatyam was originally reconstructed from temple sculptures.
"We constantly dance about the sculptures," she says, "and we are constantly informed by them."
Since it would be way too costly to ship those sculptures to Canada, Pada and her multidisciplinary design team employ photo projections to evoke them. As well, she's commissioned music by Praveen D. Rao to capture the essence of each temple's sounds and rhythms. And if you're not up on your Indian gods and goddesses, a narrator helps put everything in context.
"The narrator," says Pada, "will be illuminating the lyrics of a song and at different times will become the poet, the deity, the devotee. He'll provide context, but he won't turn it into a lecture."
Steeped in tradition, Pada isn't averse to infusing her works with other influences. A few years ago, she created her most personal work to date, Revealed By Fire, which used classical Indian dance to explore her own grief at losing her husband and daughters in the 1985 Air India tragedy. Today she acknowledges that piece as a seminal work that pushed her to a new level of understanding about herself.
"It's not in our tradition to do autobiography onstage," she says. "The mythology is not about the everydayness in our lives, it's about what was there in the gods and goddesses. To see those great female archetypes in my own work and life was deeply transformative."
Pada's thrilled that younger bharatanatyam-trained dance artists like Nova Bhattacharya and Natasha Bakht are making inroads in the contemporary dance scene.
"I love what Nova does, and Sampradaya is actually working with Natasha on a new piece for 2009," she says. "Their root movement vocabulary is bharatanatyam. It's such an incredibly dynamic form that nothing can diminish or dilute it. It will just grow."
Defining herself and the dance she continues to create is an ongoing issue for Pada.
"I was born and raised in India. I've lived in Indonesia and lived in Canada now for 42 years," she says. "I'm in constant discussion with my peers and colleagues across the world. My work is global, but it will always emerge from an Asian aesthetic."