OF FEELING WE CAN ALL SHARE
TORONTO - The refraction of personal grief, through the intellect and imagination, into something we call art has a long and honorable tradition. In essence, this is what Mississauga based Lata Pada, a noted exponent of the classical South Asian dance form called Bharata Natyam, set out to do in her most ambitious work to date, Revealed By Fire. Few creators, however, lay the substance of their grief before an audience as explicitly as does Pada. There are risks involved, but also potential rewards. In Pada’s case, she has largely succeeded in turning autobiography into a broader, universal statement about the indomitable strength of the human spirit.
On June 23, 1985, Lata Pada was working in a dance studio in Bombay. She’d traveled ahead of her husband and two teenage daughters to rehearse. They were to join her from Canada for the summer break. They never did. They were among the 329 victims of the bombing of Air- India Flight 182 off the south coast of Ireland.
Lata Pada settled her affairs in Canada, returned to India and immersed herself for the next five years in a concentrated study of Bharata Natyam. Then she returned to Canada and opened her own Sampradaya dance studio and company.
In one sense, Indian classical dance has clearly been Lata Pada’s salvation, an artistic rock from which she has been able to rebuild her shattered life. But in Revealed By Fire, given its premiere performances at Toronto’s Harbourfront Center, March 8th to 10th, it becomes much more. The story telling potential of this former temple dance becomes a thread in a multi-layered, inter-disciplinary and metaphorical work that taps into myth and reality, the conscious and unconscious. It incorporates Pada’s choreography, for herself and five youthful members of Sampradaya, the evocative photographic images of Cylla von Tiedemann, text and dramaturgy by Judith Rudakoff and an original score by India’s R.A.Ramamani, itself wrapped within a suggestive and often haunting soundscape by Timothy Sullivan.
Revealed By Fire opens with Pada, dressed in a simple creamy - coloured sari, limbering up on an open stage against a backdrop of tall, vertical red silk panels. Her arms swing. She sinks into a deep knee bend, tentatively claps a rhythm and launches into a solo that demonstrates Pada’s command of the richly gestural Bharata Natyam style. Her body lunges decisively. Her arms extend like branches. Her hyper-articulate fingers speak a symbolic language.
There’s the sound of distant traffic, then the roar of a jet passing overhead. “I was rehearsing when the phone rang,” recounts Pada in a recorded voice-over. Soon the tragedy unfolds. The silk banners become tongues of fire. Pada’s emotional abyss has begun.
From this point, Revealed By Fire interweaves observations, implied and stated, on the myth of the goddess Sita , on various forms of cultural baggage, on the weight of memory, on the bare - breasted devadasis immortalized in ancient temple sculptures and on the downtrodden lot of Indian women. This includes the custom of sati in which an Indian widow was expected to sacrifice herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. It becomes clear that Pada’s personal journey of recovery required her also to commit a form of psychological sati, to enter the fire and to accept the pain. Fire, so Pada’s larger message relates, is both the destroyer and giver of life. Revealed By Fire is a tale of spiritual purificaton.
Von Tiedemann’s projected photographs, in which fire and water are recurring images, are a powerful support for Pada’s theme. Like the sounds cape, they mix jolting reality with purely poetic effects. It’s as hard to be unaffected by a snapshot of Pada’s husband and daughters dissolving into an overlay of flames, as it is by the sound of Brinda Pada’s voice, captured on a phone message shortly before she boarded Flight 182.
course, the big issue in a work such as this is the extent to which it
is able to transcend the personal. If Revealed By Fire were no more
than an extended therapy session conducted in public, it might be gripping
in a ghoulish sort of way but would also be embarrassingly self - indulgent.
Thankfully, this is not the case. Although there are moments
when the symbolic layering of themes becomes too didactic, the overall
message is conveyed with great dignity and even restraint. This is
largely due to Lata Pada’s own ability to convey depth of feeling with
an extreme economy of physical means. Rather than create a dance performance
augmented with sound and visual effects, she has produced a highly collaborative
work in which the interplay of elements achieve more than the movement