Deepa Mani and Sheena Chundee both say dance chose them.
As a five-year-old, Mani cried her way through Bharatanatyam classes, later finding a passion for the form, and Chundee found herself in the world of professional ballet aged just eight when she began training with the UK’s Royal Ballet.
They now spearhead major companies in Melbourne’s dance scene, both working to nurture the next generation of dancing talent – Mani as Artistic Director of Chandralaya School of Dance, and Chundee as Director of Rebel Stepz.
So, in 2018, when Mani chanced upon an article about Chundee in a magazine, she knew she had to get in touch with this fellow woman-of-colour dancer with a parallel experience. Mani scoured the internet for Chundee’s email and reached out to her, kickstarting what would be a unique collaboration across their different dance forms – TOUCH.
“I was really excited to see a woman-of-colour ballerina who has gone through the entire learning thread and practiced as a ballerina,” says Mani. “We talked about collaborating; we’re on a land where East and West don’t come together often, and to tell that story as women-of-colour is empowering.”
In TOUCH, Mani and Chundee experiment with their respective styles to draw out new approaches to dance and encourage cross-cultural collaboration in all facets of society. It’s a piece about cultures intersecting, told through the juncture between Bharatanatyam and Ballet.
“In some ways it’s easy, because the foundations of both styles are similar; similar arm and feet positions, ways of telling through the body,” says Chundee. “There’s lots that’s different too, and it pushes us choreographically. We’re coming up with something organic, neither ballet nor BN but somewhere in between, which is quite beautiful.”
The duo’s starting point for the piece was the similarities and differences in their lived experience as South Asian women who have both encountered rigid dance training systems. Chundee, who primarily facilitates and directs in her role at Rebel Stepz, says working on TOUCH has been insightful for her career.
“Personally, I stepped away from dance because I was so done with the institutionalisation; I’ve always been a bit rebellious,” says Chundee. “Now I feel I’m able to choreograph and experiment on my own terms; I probably wouldn’t have come back to dancing if not for this project.”
Accompanying Mani and Chundee on stage is award-winning ballet dancer Jasmine Lim, and South Asian Australian musicians Bhairavi Raman (violin), Nanthesh Sivarajah (mridangam) and Rohan Dasika (double bass). Mani says these bicultural collaborators have brought the piece to a new level.
“There’s a lot happening, and if I was an audience member, it would be like a nice South Indian thali meal,” says Mani. “There’s variety and richness in content and culture, and then you’ve dabbed it with a bit of butter on the top!”
At the centre of TOUCH is a deep respect for each other’s dance form, borne out of their friendship and collaborative process. The duo hopes this mutual admiration will translate into more cross-cultural collaboration throughout the creative industry.
“I hope people will start to look at Ballet and Bharatanatyam differently,” says Mani. “I want audiences to open their minds on collaboration, not just artistically, but in everyday life, and not have reservations.”
“I’m hoping audiences will question their own inclusivity and take time to understand people with different cultures more,” says Chundee. “I want them to be less afraid of acceptance and discovery. Also, to think, wow, that was amazing.”
TOUCH by Deepa Mani and Sheena Chundee is showing at Melbourne Fringe Festival from October 4 – 7.