Difference/Desire choreography by Hari Krishnan. Presented by Danceworks at Harbourfront Centre Theatre (231 Queens Quay West), Thursday to Saturday (Apr 29-May 1) at 8 pm. $24, stu/srs $16. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
To the uninitiated, thoughts of East Indian dance typically conjure up two images - big, boisterous scenes from Bollywood productions or silent, submissive, sari-clad women performing mysterious rituals. Hari Krishnan wants to shake up those stereotypes.
"I'm trying to put Indian dance in a much broader context," says the Toronto-based choreographer.
As one of North America's leading experts in bharatanatyam, the traditional court dance of south India, Krishnan has developed a reputation for merging world views in his works.
In the program opening tonight (April 29) at Harbourfront Centre, his two new works - Bollywood Hopscotch and title piece Difference/Desire - represent attempts to reconcile the present with the past.
Historically, bharatanatyam has blended spirituality, sensuality and sexuality, explains Krishnan. Under the Victorian British Empire, however, the dancers who traditionally performed it, known as devadasis, became outcasts as reputed prostitutes.
By the 1930s, most had abandoned their practice while a new, sanitized form of bharatanatyam emerged, focusing solely on the spiritual.
Today, as Britney Spears is to ballet, so Bollywood is to bharatanatyam, an irony that isn't lost on Krishnan.
"As a young student, I was reminded time and again by my upper-caste teachers that cinema stars were dirty, vulgar and not real dancers."
Still, they were idolized, and many early stars came from devadasi families. From this history came the inspiration for Bollywood Hopscotch, a subversive take on the friction between Bollywood and so-called high art.
Featuring Toronto DJ Zahra Dhanani as the prototypical Bollywood diva, and seven other dancers, the piece mimics the melodrama of the cinema in vignettes portraying the diva's life.
"The Bollywood diva is always coy, vivacious, shy, exuberant, tragic and romantic," explains Krishan. "She's eternally in the world of fantasy."
Where Bollywood Hopscotch reclaims bharatanatyam's connection with the so-called low arts, Difference/Desire reclaims its sexuality. Co-produced with odissi expert Ananya Chatterjea, the duet was inspired by Tantric notions of the god and goddess merging into one. Krishnan and Chatterjea develop a new vocabulary based on the gestures, facial expressions and movements of their respective forms.
"You glimpse snatches of both worlds but are never sure which one. It's androgyny with a capital A."