OFF CENTRE questions a sense of “the other” that dwells within each of us, creating parallel realities. These realms offer a delicious tension between conflict and convergence. How can one express a queer identity within a traditional dance form? Exploring the embodiment of gender and sexuality both in and out of dance, the work becomes a luscious celebration of all things sensual and erotic, a full throttled defiance of heteronormative clichés, and a loving embrace of self.
Montreal Rampage met up with the artist Sujit Vaidya who will be presenting this piece in Montreal at the end of March. Sujit didn’t start his forays into this dance form till later in life, after being a successful professional in medicine and fashion. As a Canadian queer artist of South Asian origin, he uniquely explores his queer identity, through this dance form and sees it as a manner to express his true self.
Sinj: People tend to identify classical South Asian dance forms with existing systems of gender norms, religious traditions and the like. How do you approach this in your art and practise of Bharatanatyam?
Sujit: I start with questioning the word “Classical”. The form in its current practice and performance holds a very troubled past, with history of erasure and appropriation. So, I call all forms Indian dance or dance forms originating from India. I find this umbrella term to be more inclusive. The minute we use words like “classical” and “folk”, we are already bringing in a sense of “othering” and creating a non inclusive space. If one understands and looks at the history of Bharatanatyam, none of what the form represents today holds true. This idea of strict gender norms or hyper religiosity are all part of the “reformed” “cleansed” version, a fetishized version that is represented as “sacred” and “transcendent” The essence of Bharatanatyam lies in explicit eroticism. To me, that is my connection to the “traditional” repertoire. I’ve always expressed gender in a non-confirmative way. I recall being told to “dance like a man” which always left me scratching my head because that was the only way for me to express masculinity.
Sinj: The theme of this show is ‘the other’ which is fascinating as it can be easily interpreted as the ‘outsider’ the ‘one that doesn’t belong’. How are you interpreting ‘the other’ through this performance?
Sujit: In both OFF CENTRE and the short solo I’ll be dancing, this idea of search is carried through in the narrative. Even though I draw from my personal experiences, these are common collective experiences. We have all experienced being outside of something… be it gender, sexuality, identity, we are always occupying different ways of being. In OFF CENTRE for example, we explore this idea of standing outside of an experience and looking for connections through personal narrative. It is all presented in a very abstract way, so we embody the idea, the feeling, but leave it open to the spectator to make those connections through their experience. I stick to Bharatanatyam grammar, do not deviate from it, but play with time and space. We use prolonged silences throughout the first piece to create space for negotiations between the two bodies. The sound, movement, costuming are all distilled to the bare minimal to get to the essence of the form. We move together, move separately, interact at times, trying to find a sense of belonging with each other. The solo I’ll be presenting also explores a sense of the other through a singular body. There are constant negotiations between the past and future through the present.
Sinj: Can you tell us a little about Bharatanatyam and the place of queerness in the dance form? How have you personally informed your work navigating classical and queer identities.
Sujit: As far as there being place for Queerness in Bharatanatyam, I am actively engaging with creating space for queer narrative in my own work as well as the collaborations I chose to be part of. By virtue of being a queer identifying person, my work is already that. I don’t actively seek a label for myself or the work I create. However, I am deeply interested in eroticism the expression of it through my experiences as a queer person within the form that I’m trained in.
Sinj: Can you share your life of dance as it evolved in Canada.
Sujit: Dance formally came into my life here in Canada. The first teacher that gave me the ability to dance was French Canadian. All of this heavily influences my dance experience and choices. I found myself and my freedom in this part of the world. I have yet to find my voice in the Indian experience of dance. I have felt the need to adjust my voice for validation in that experience. In Canada, I have been accepted and acknowledged for my dance choices and contributions. I find my Canadian experience gives me a voice to be fiercely and unapologetically me and be wholeheartedly accepted regardless of my sexual identity, gender or religious (non) beliefs. I also find that I’m allowed space to be critical of the dance form.
Sinj: What is dance to you? What does it mean to be a dancer?
Sujit: Dance permeates everything I do.
Dance is a tool I use to navigate life.
It allows me to make tangible experiences out of nothingness.
It allows me space to feel, process and to let go.
It allows me space to feel, dive deeper and to sit in discomfort.
It allows me to hide in imaginary realms.
It allows me to be seen and shine as bright as I’d like.
It allows me compassion towards myself.
It allows me to unlock spaces that I’m not brave enough to speak about.
It allows me to dream.
It allows me joy.
It allows me abandon.
It allows me freedom.
It allows me ME.
It’s a blessing to be a dancer.
See Sujit Vaidya’s Off Centre from March 24 – 26 at the MAI / Montréal, arts interculturels (3680 Jeanne-Mance). 7:30 pm. Tickets $28 or $36 with Kismet. Information at www.m-a-i.qc.ca/en/boxoffice, 514 982-3386