The late British neurologist and writer, Oliver Sacks, thought the connection between art and migraine headaches was a long-standing one. In his first book, Migraine (1970), he compared the geometric configurations in early Islamic art to the typical presentation of a migraine aura, and wondered whether some of these seventh-century artists were actually drawing the hallucinations of their headaches.
So choreographer Nova Bhattacharya's Infinite Storms, a 55-minute piece for five dancers that explores the migraine condition, might belong to an extensive lineage of headache-inspired art. I've yet to meet a migraineur who isn't fascinated by the sonic and visual symptoms that often preface their pain (I'd describe my own migraine auras as somewhere between Pink Floyd lasers and Byzantine mosaics). There's a quality to the composition of an aura – the flickering lights, undulating shapes, overlapping lattices and crystalline chevrons – that feels unnervingly artful.
Bhattacharya's desire to turn these neural mysteries into dance is a promising one; you could argue that migraines also present a form of choreography in their quasi-physical gesturing through time and space. And her particular style of dance – melding the classical patterning and structure of Bharatanatyam with contemporary motifs – seems well-suited for the task in its parallel quality of order and chaos. The results, at this point of the work's development, are mixed. There are several interesting sequences in Infinite Storms, along with dancing and compositional moments to admire, but there's an ambiguity about how they fit together – not to mention how they synthesize in form and feeling – that leaves many unanswered questions.
The piece begins with the dancers in a diamond centre stage, all connected via swathes of material to a mummified figure in the middle. Malar Varatharaja rings a cymbal that leads to an engaging solo by Atri Nundy. Nundy is a member of Toronto's foremost Bharatanatyam company (Sampradaya Dance) and her dancing is one of the piece's highlights. In this solo, she treats us to the expansive lunges and propulsive knee bends that are typical of the form.
It's followed by a compelling and varied duet by Kate Holden and Molly Johnson, who free themselves from the centre-stage configuration to perform a combative string of lunges and floor rolls. There's a shift in tone; the movement takes on a quality of aquatic softness, as the two women sit side-by-side, connected at the arm.
The first sense that we get of suffering comes when Bhattacharya is unwound from her mummification and remains poised in stillness, letting her tearful expression intensify. This leads to some of the most invigorating choreography, with all five dancers moving quickly and independently, as though caught in their own experiences of pain. At one point, Bhattacharya collapses backward on the ensemble in apparent exhaustion or agony. In a memorable tableau, all five dancers are suspended on demi-pointe, their mouths stretched wide in unspeakable pain.
Most of this is performed to a range of classical Indian music, sometimes intercepted by a soundtrack that sounds like heavy breathing. But just at the point that we've engaged with the troupe as human sufferers of headaches, the rules of engagement shift gears. The dancers twitch and convulse in a way that seems non-figurative. They encroach in a line toward the audience with seductive smiles, then freeze in a long stretch of onstage stillness (An earlier moment saw them pounding their sternums with closed fists).The relationships between the performers, and to the theme itself, begins to feel muddled and haphazard. In a blunt sense, we lose track of who is the headache and who is the headache-sufferer. The choreography, which is generally quite loose in content and structure, isn't compelling enough to override these concerns.
The program notes tell us "the meaning is yours to invent or not." Fair enough; "meaning" is a contentious term to contend with regard to the analysis and appreciation of any work of art. But Infinite Storms is freighted with symbolic movement and facial expressions that seem to beg for decoding. What emerges is a kind of disconnect between our expectations and what the piece is able to deliver.
Infinite Storms continues at the Theatre Centre until Jan. 29.