Guru Suraj with Marielle Gerke
Guru Suraj, a dance artist living in Chennai, India is visiting Toronto to present his film Contact Improvisation Lab Goa, co-created with Rahul Varma and Hari Choudhary, at the Contact Dance International Film Festival. Their film was selected by the festival jury as a Silver Award winner. Guru will be accepting the award for his team at the July 1 Gala screening at the iconic Revue Cinema on Roncesvalles Ave in Toronto.
Guru Suraj is a painter, dancer, theatre artist, Yoga trainer and more. He graduated from one of the most established Art Institutions in India – The Government College of Fine Arts (Chennai) and has a master’s in the philosophy of Yoga. He started practicing Contact Dance Improvisation 10 years ago and fell in love with the form. Guru has taught Contact Dance in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and UAE and is a teacher and team organizer at popular Goa Contact festival. He has been instrumental in building the contact dance scene in India through his group Contact Improv India Organization, which focuses on spreading Contact Improv around India and making it accessible for everybody. Guru explains, “I see dance as not only everyone’s birthright but one of the greatest tools of awakening one’s consciousness and awareness. Dancing can be a mirror to look deeply into our self.”
Contact dance improvisation is a social dance involving touch, in which momentum between two or more people is used to create and inspire dance movements. Similar to martial arts like Aikido, momentum is harnessed through weight sharing and rolling point of contact. Contact dancers use these techniques, not to defend themselves, but to dance. The form requires a deep awareness that allows dancers to respond in the moment to their partner. There are no pre-set roles and the role of leader and follower interchanges and blurs together. Contact dance is accessible to people with no previous dance training and to people with physical disabilities.
The Contact Dance International Film Festival celebrates films featuring momentum-based dance created by some of the top creators and dancers in the field of Contact dance improvisation. It provides an opportunity for both film and dance lovers to experience the joy, chaos, and intimacy of human connection through physical movement. The Festival runs every two years on the odd years and is presenting its fourth season in Toronto, June 29 to July 1, 2019.
The Contact Dance International Film Festival was founded by local Roncesvalles, Toronto area resident Kathleen Rea through her dance company REAson d’etre dance productions. Kathleen, a former dancer with the National Ballet Company of Canada, switched ship from ballet to Contact Dance when she tried it for the first time twenty years ago. At that moment, she decided to dedicate the rest of her life towards supporting and promoting contact dance. Kathleen explains, “Contact dance is just about the furthest form of dance from ballet. They are both beautiful but really are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Ballet is about control and exacting technique, while contact dance is more like surfing a wave that you do not have control of. One does not have control the momentum of another decent but it takes a practiced level of awareness and skill to this harness kinetic force ”
Kathleen goes on to describe her philosophy in creating a contact dance film festival. She says, “Contact dance is really an all levels dance form in which experienced dancers get just as much joy from dancing with a beginner as with more advanced dancers. I really wanted the Contact Dance International Film festival to have the same feel. So, we program all level films! This means that films with high production values are screened right next to Instagram clips filmed on someone’s smartphone.”
Dancers Guru Suraj, Marielle Gerke and Hari Choudhari
The festival has always received submissions from around the world, but Kathleen noticed during the submission phase this year that there was an increased level of diversity. Since Toronto is such a diverse city, she was excited that the festival content was starting to come close to matching the level of diversity in the city in which it is occurring. Contact dance improvisation is not a codified dance form and as such every part of the world practices, it in a different way led by their community’s curiosities and interest. When different groups meet there is a chance for a rich and inspiring exchange of new ideas can that invigorate the community.
This increase in diversity of films submitted to the festival is partly due to the growing contact dance scene in India and the draw and history this community has to dance filmmaking. This season CDIFF is screening 4 films by Indian filmmakers. The popular Goa contact festival has in particular been the springboard for the creation of numerous contact dance films. A documentary on the Goa festival won an award in the 2015 festival. Two of the four Indian films this year were created in Goa and both have won festival awards. Guru’s filmmaking team has won the CDIFF silver award and Rohit Prem is a co-winner of the CDIFF emerging filmmaker award.
Film-still from Rohit Prem’s film Contact Improvisation Goa India with dancersRosolind Hogate Smith and Ariane Bernier
Possibly Bollywood culture plays into the fact that so many contact dance films are created by Indian filmmakers. Dance in Indian films has had a large cultural imprint both in India and on the world and Indian contact dancers may naturally gravitate towards creating films focused on dance because of this cultural history.
The Contact Dance International Film Festival invited Guru Suraj to come to Toronto to pick up the Silver Award on behalf of his filmmaking team and to network and share knowledge with the Toronto Contact Dance community. After a lengthy and involved visa application process, the Canadian Government initially claimed that they did not believe Guru would leave Canada after his visit and denied him a tourist visa.
Kathleen says, “as Canadian citizenship, international travel is a relatively easy thing for me. I was shocked at how involved the application was to apply for a tourist visa to Canada for many of the festival’s filmmakers from countries targeted with strick and involved travel visa policies. When two of our filmmakers received visa denials, I came to understand better how access to travel can affect a person’s career trajectory. The Canadian government’s belief that Guru would not leave Canada was unfounded. He is teaching in Germany later in the summer. He is a well-known and respected dancer who has made it his life work to bring contact dance to India. Why would he want to stay in Canada?”
Guru Suraj and Maite Moreno Martínez
Both Kathleen and Guru did not want the rich cultural exchange to be swept aside by travel policies that target certain regions of the world. In one week, they raised enough funds to hire Bondy Immigration Law to reapply for Guru’s tourist visa. A petition was also started that garnered 1440 signatures. Federal MP Arif Virani got on board as well, writing a letter of support for Guru’s re-application. The Contact Dance International Film Festival was moved by the level of support from both the Toronto and the international contact dance community. The team effort paid off as Guru received his Canadian travel visa on his third application.
Guru says about this visa application process, “…What a start for a journey, journey before the journey itself. I have never been involved in such a fight or had to ask for so much support or have received so much love. And as I receive the visa… I feel a lot of gratitude for everything that happened. I’m grateful for the determination … of Kathleen Rea to try every way possible to make this happen. I remember her saying: “you are coming to pick up this award!” But also to make this case as loud as possible. It’s such an eye opener for people who were not aware of this regional discrimination and travel politics. This goes far beyond my personal opportunity to travel and teach. What I received will be shared with my co-artists here [in India]….. And this is also about carving the paths for Artists from all parts of the world to have equal opportunities to share their work. And about the strength of this nomadic CI community that truly backs up its members when needed.”
Kathleen says, “I am late in the game in terms of realizing how much access to travel imbalances have shaped the international Contact dance improvisation community. The fact that many contact dancers have to go through months of rigorous visa applications and frequent denials creates an imbalance in terms of who can build their career through international travel. I wanted in some small way to repair this imbalance by supporting Guru in obtaining his travel visa, but it is not enough actually. What I would like to see is that a global discussion starts in the contact improvisation community around this issue that leads to practical solutions. Festivals could have a travel access fee added to registration to be used to support those having trouble getting visas. If those of us with travel privilege can pitch in to support those without the privilege then I hope things can become more balanced. Money raised could be used as well for education about the issue and on lobbying countries that have unfair travel policies targeting certain regions. As a Canadian, I am ashamed to say that Canada is one of those countries.”
Come out and meet and learn from Guru Suraj at the Contact Dance International Film Festival occurring June 29 to July 1, 2019, in Toronto.
This review is written by Guest Blogger Leslie Heydon:
I had the privilege to witness an excerpt from “IHU” presented Tuesday at the Aki Studio as part of CPAMO’s 10th Anniversary. In the language of the Kamayura people of Brazil, IHU means everything which can be heard and includes the supernatural, the sound of spirits and the magical beings of the forest. “IHU” choreographed by Newton Moraes and mentored by Jean Sasportes (Pina Bausch Wuppertal Tanztheater) represents his personal journey of self-discovery, acceptance of all aspects of his spirit, and triumph over prejudice through the development of his spiritual self. After his partner passed away in 2008, Moraes wanted to leave everything and go back to Brazil. This challenging phase in his life was the inspiration for the creation of “IHU”, a tribute to Robert Shirley. The excerpt of “IHU” I saw was a solo dance performed by Newton Moraes with lighting design by Gabriel Cropley.
Moraes’ performance was physically high energy and paired with deeply rhythmic music it projected an urgency that held my rapt attention. During part of the piece, he donned a clear plastic face mask that referenced feminine ideals of beauty. By partially obscuring his face the mask conveyed a sense of disconnection and discomfort. It spoke to me of the brittle pretext of outer world coping contrasted with an internal struggle. While wearing the mask, Moraes interacted with audience members creating a sense of connection that was both comforting and gave me an unsettled feeling of apprehension. This juxtaposition of contrasting emotions elicited through the mask and Moraes’ visceral movement style was compelling and I feel represents the crazy ride of grief in which so many contrasting emotions come in waves. Moraes’ performance was powerful yet vulnerable and thus poignant.
I look forward to seeing one of Moraes’ full length works.
Leslie Heydon has a bachelor’s degree from U of T (Major in Psychology, Specialty in Fine Arts). Leslie trained as an Expressive Arts Therapist at the CREATE Institute and worked in addictions for over 10 years in specialized programs for women and black youth, providing individual therapy and facilitating groups. Her passion is to explore and guide others to explore the internal wilderness of the soul.
Irma Villafuerte in “No Woman’s Land” photo by Wayne Eardley
The spotlight over the past years has turned towards the under-representation of female choreographers in the established dance companies. In the press and social media, I have seen a repeat of the same sort of questions and thought processes in regards to this issue that goes something like this “… where are all the female choreographers?” or “why aren’t there more female choreographers” or “If only there were more female choreographers then we could hire them”. While it is great to see the press and dance community having these discussions, I would like to counter by saying we are not that hard to find. We are mostly finding our way, on our own terms by starting our own companies and self-producing. They should concentrate on finding us, seeing our shows and writing reviews. This would shine a spotlight on our work that can help even out the gender inequalities we face. Roshanak Jaberi is an Iranian-Canadian female choreographer whom I had no trouble finding. I would like to shine some stage-light on this talented and brave creator.
I just came home from Jabari’s production “No Woman’s Land”, created for her company Jaberi Dance Theatre and presented by DanceWorks at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre in Toronto. Jaberi Dance Theatre is a multi-disciplinary performing arts company that explores socially relevant content and highlights the lived experience of racialized women. “No Woman’s Land” tells stories of refugee women fleeing their homelands due to acute starvation, poverty, natural disasters, armed conflict and war. Roshanak engaged in an intense research phase with the support of IRIS (Institute for Research and Development on Inclusion and Society) and scholar Dr. Shahrzad Mojab. The work that arose out of the stories and information collected is a weaving of dance, visual images, text and sound. Pre-show, the stage is set with something that looks like the frame of a tent. Light shines through the frame casting shadows that look like bars of some virtual prison. Or perhaps they are a net that will hold the audience together while we witness the stories that are about to unfold. One of the beautiful aspects of Jaberi’s work is that the images portrayed hold multiple meanings and tones, creating a richly layered tapestry.
The work starts at high velocity with the frame turning over to become a boat. Images of a storm are projected over all surfaces of the stage. We witness refugees fighting for their lives in stormy waters. The choreography is direct in its movements, but the nuances are complex and cut deep into the heart. The cast (Irma Villafuerte, Nickeshia Garrick, Victoria Mata, Denise Solleza, Drew Berry, Ahmed Moneka) are fully committed. One can sense they know the importance of the job they have in bringing these stories to the stage.
Victoria Mata, Irma Villafuerte & Drew Berry in “No Woman’s Land” photo by Wayne Eardley
The program includes a fold-out pamphlet that educates the public about the world-wide refugee crisis. We learn that 68.5 million people have been forced from their homes and that one person is forcibly displaced every two seconds. We learn that approximately one in five women in refugee camps are sexually-assaulted. This statistic is brought to life on stage through Irma Villafuerte’s solo that depicts unwanted hands reaching for her body through “bars”, and through a voice-over of a young girl’s story of a brutal rape. The pamphlet also describes how refugee women become shrewd survivors through their lived experience, finding strategies, cunning and independence. In a fierce solo by Nickeshia Garrick, sharp movements cut through the air with grace and speed. Every cell of her body exemplifies pride and beauty that dismantles the stereotype of the helpless, passive victim.
Victoria Mata in “No Woman’s Land” photo by Wayne Eardley
In another scene, dancers frantically fight for limited buckets. The rattling sound of hollow metal clanging reverberates on stage, a music score that gives the audience a felt sense of the panic of thirst. The buckets then become stepping stones across minefields or seats at a social gathering that gives relief from the worries of being displaced. Text and projected images deliver story and setting, but dance is the element that delivers the emotional world hidden behind the words and statistics. This embodiment is what brings the stories home to those witnessing. Throughout the work a repeated poem delivers the message that people flee their home when fleeing is safer than staying. This made me think of what it would take to make me grab my kids and flee. A vital aspect of “No Woman’s Land” is that it invites the viewer into an immersive art experience that encourages the viewer to imagine what it would be like if those circumstances unfolding on stage happened to them. Jaberi’s states in her program notes that “No Woman’s Land” does not attempt to present solutions to systemic systems of oppression that lead and influence the refugee crisis. Rather, she hopes the work will start discourse amongst those in a position of influence.
Roshanak Jaberi is a brave and articulate choreographer with a strong vision. I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future.