By Rossana Karunaratna
Kandyan dance, considered the national dance of Sri Lanka, originated in the period of the Kandyan kings, from Kandy, as the name suggests, the last royal capital of Sri Lanka. There are five variations or types of the Kandyan Dance, namely Ves Dance, Naiyandi Dance,Uddekki Dance, Pantheru Dance and Vannams. The most popular is the “Ves Dance“. The dancer (male dancer) performs imitating the movement of peacocks, wild animals, moving the body according to the rhythm of the drum. The head and the arms mark the style of the dance, requiring extensive training to achieve perfection.
The Story of Kapila
Kapila Palihawadana, currently the director of Natanda, Sri Lankan first Dance Theater Group, used to practice this kind of dance. Sri Lanka was experiencing the violence of an armed conflict between the LTTE (Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam) and the Sri Lankan Government which started in 1983 and the insurrection promoted by a Marxist Sinhalese Party, the JVP. It was a hard time and almost 90,000 people lost their lives. In the midst of this situation Kapila persisted in making his dream come true: to become a professional dancer.
In Sri Lanka, traditional dances are taught and performed every year by students in their school functions. Kapila, as many students, finished school and proceeded to apply to university. After a long search, he was finally awarded a scholarship to study modern dance in Germany. Studying abroad had a huge impact on his idea of the meaning of dancing; he came to the realisation that dance is not only an art, but it can be a tool for transformation of social relations.
His ambition to become a leading dancer was no longer enough; so he had the idea to organize a leading contemporary dance community, expanding the boundaries of traditional dances to what he visualised as dance theatre; beyond physicality, cultures and geographical demarcations. He wanted to open traditional minds to appreciate and generate a movement in support of contemporary dance.
This is how NATANDA (Dancing in Sinhala language) was born, in 2002.
A New Style
Kapila’s background in Kandyan dance served as the starting point to create a different choreographic style, generating a fusion of the traditional Kandyan dance (Sinhalese culture), Ballet and yoga , including Bharathanaatyam (Dance with South Indian influence, expression of Tamil culture), to create the first contemporary Sri Lankan dance theatre.
The dancers who joined him were given the chance to express their individual personalities and bodies in a collective process. Soon a new form of body language appeared in the Sri Lankan scene, creating a common space where no boundaries existed anymore. Female and male dancers could express themselves and show how modern dance was opening a door to a dialogue between the main two cultures in the country: Sinhala and Tamil. This became an important landmark for Sri Lankan culture as it represents a step forward to understand modern expressions of dance as a path to reinterpreting the country’s original roots.
The themes adopted by Natanda have been diverse and its objectives have started to expand too. In an attempt to bridge boundaries of ethnicity, religion and class, Natanda started actively promoting community-dance education by conducting workshops, often among low-income communities.
Resistance to Fusion
The armed conflict finally ended in 2009, and as it often happens at the end of a civil war, there were expectations to find opportunities for peace-building and reintegrating the common identity in the country. However, the commitment to do this with new initiatives like Natanda’s project, has been limited. It may be connected with some resistance to fusion. Especially regarding Western and local arts, considering this may be a threat against Sri Lankan culture. Nevertheless, Natanda brings a Sri Lankan influence to each of their performances, incorporating a gender approach. Their recent presentation called “Nostalgia” showed pieces of their repertoire, especially a Kandyan dance performed by a couple, in traditional costumes.
A few years ago, the British Council awarded a grant to the group to undertake a project named ‘Touch’ in partnership with Touchdown Dance UK. This project built on the capacity of disabled and non-disabled dancers as an expression of inclusion in a post conflict scenario, and focused on the concept that dance can bring communities together and raise cultural awareness.
It is a hard road to transform minds and consolidate their gained space but Natanda is determined to follow it, dancing for transformation.
See more about Natanda here
Rossana has 25 years of experience working with civil society, government agencies, higher education institutions and international organisations in Peru, her country of birth and in Sri Lanka as tutor and consultant. Her areas of expertise include peace building and conflict transformation, human rights, gender (women’s rights and domestic violence), state-civil society relationships and inter-marriage and citizenship. She lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
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