PURNIMA/FULL MOON choreography by Hari Krishnan, Thursday to Saturday (April 13 to 15) at the Premiere Dance Theatre (207 Queens Quay West). $25, stu/srs $20. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
If you saw Deepa Mehta's film Water, about the plight of India's widows, you'll be interested to learn that courtesans could never be widowed.
"They were married to the temple gods, and they basically called the shots," says choreographer Hari Krishnan. "They didn't need men to qualify them. They were quite empowered, and if they had children, the kids took the names of the mothers, not the fathers. It was a wonderful twist about pre-colonial Indian society."
Krishnan should know. He's devoted most of his professional life to studying classical Indian court dances, including Bharatanatyam, which he fuses with contemporary and multimedia elements.
His latest work, Purnima/Full Moon, explores the sensuality and eroticism that was part of Indian dance before the Victorian morality of British imperialism put a lid on all that.
Krishnan has dusted off those dances and even interviewed some surviving courtesans, now in their 80s and 90s and discovered a lot of movement that borders on the raunchy.
"There's one piece about a woman who's questioning her loved one's virility, because she can't be satisfied by him," laughs Krishnan, on the phone from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he teaches twice a week as a visiting professor in the department of dance. He talks a mile a minute.
"That was from the 17th century! A lot of classical Indian dance has become about gods and goddesses and is highly theoretical. But back then it was couched in life experience. That's how the courtesans perceived their art. They humanized the gods. Krishna was a man first, and had to be sexually satisfied."
As might be expected, Krishnan - the choreographer, not the god - has received some flak from Indian classical dance purists.
"Oh yeah, but it's mostly because I question what classical means," he says. "The form has gone through so many changes, it's not an unbroken history. We can trace the form back centuries, but there have been ruptures that give us a quirky and non-linear understanding of the dance. It's always evolving and meandering. That's what I love about it it can be classical and contemporary at the same time."
One of the great things about a Hari Krishnan show is its eclecticism. Not only is his dance troupe ethnically all over the map, but the people he chooses to collaborate with bring their own backgrounds.
A few years ago, Krishnan collaborated with Balinese-trained dance artist Sandra Wong. Two years ago, local DJ Zahra Dhanani played a Bollywood diva in a cheeky exploration of Indian film dance.
This time around his collaborators include acclaimed photographer/video artist Cylla von Tiedemann and interdisciplinary artist Katherine Duncanson.
He travelled with von Tiedemann to south India in 2004, and the two captured images of some remaining courtesans, as well as crumbling courtyards. For the show, she has deconstructed the images, so we'll be seeing, for instance, part of a temple mixed with a hand or a face. The dance takes place between two screens layered with images.
Duncanson, meanwhile, functions as a link between past and present, the audience and the performers. She'll be dancing and reading translated poetry.
"Katherine represents a contemporary voice in the work, a modern incarnation of a strong, independent female," says Krishnan.
"My work has always been about collaboration," he says. "It's one of the reasons I moved to Toronto and refused to settle in suburbia. It's all about growing and trusting. You can't be selfish. Or totally formal.
"I need to laugh, joke and even scream during the process. I'm glad all the collaborators are as insane as I am."