Throughout Winter 2019, artist and dancer Neetika Sharma ran her project, the Katha-Ras Youth Dance Lab, a dynamic youth-empowering initiative that brought together four young female dancers of colour that practice the traditional dance form to work on a five-day intensive choreography lab with the intention of exploring lines, movements and grammar of Kathak dance under the context of personal experiences.
The Katha-Ras Dance Lab focused primarily on an Indian Classical dance form called Kathak, which can be traced back to 400 BCE, and is marked by a strong grammar of complicated rhythmic patterns and combinations presented through intense footwork, pirouettes, hand gestures and movements. The term Kathak comes from the Vedic Sanskrit word Katha which means "story". As the name suggests, storytelling and dance apologues are a major component of this energetic art form. While ArtReach invests in many emerging art forms, we also recognize the importance of providing funds to preserve traditional art forms. Dances like Kathak are a key component of Indian culture and spirituality, and essential in the survival of important historical stories.
When asked why the community needs a project like this, Neetika shares that “while there is an ever-growing demand to see diverse stories and themes on stage, it is also true that Indian classical dancers only represent a very tiny percent of the Canadian dance industry. It wasn't until the late 1970’s when Indian classical dance was recognized as an art form by arts councils in the country, and the first time an Indian classical dancer ever received operational funding as a solo artist was only in 1993! These figures and certain personal experiences always propel me to work towards creating more opportunities, not just for myself, but also for other dancers like me who face similar cultural and gender-based stereotypes”.
Throughout the project, participants not only learned the technical skills of the art form, but were also given the opportunity to have their work showcased, build their networks, and in Neetika’s words, “to connect at a human level and support each other in ways that went beyond just being a participant. They built life-long relationships and are excited to find new ways of working together in future too”. She continues, “I strongly believe that when young artists start viewing each other as synergistic collaborators, rather than competitors, great quality artwork can be produced that will have enough gravitas and power to change societies for the better”.
Neetika also notes that an important intangible developed through the project was that participants were “able to discuss the common issues and challenges that young women of artists of color face as part of their journey to establish themselves in the mainstream Toronto arts scene. Ultimately, we were able to hold conversations along the two major concerning topics: surviving gender-based biases within our society and communities, and finding a niche for a traditional and culturally-rooted dance form in the modern Toronto dance spectrum”.
So what’s next for Neetika and the Dance Lab? She notes, “moving forward, we would like to make the Katha-Ras Dance Lab an annual occurrence where more and more dancers come together, explore synergies, and create exciting new dance works based on innovative themes”.
See the video from the Dance Lab final show case below, and follow Neetika’s work on Instagram at Instagram.com/Neetika.s5!