Dancers Rathimalar Govindarajoo and January Low did not set out to make a feminist statement when they embarked on their show bloom at live venue Bobo KL, which starts tomorrow. Along the way, however, it has evolved into not just a celebration of womanhood, but more specifically, a commentary on what it means for a woman to be able to work or pursue her passion while also raising a family.
Low’s body itself serves as a visual metaphor. She will be seven months pregnant when she takes to the stage this weekend. It is a rare sight in the dance world, and even more so in Indian classical dance. It is telling, perhaps, that Low has been inundated with questions about her decision to dance while pregnant since word of the show got out. But it also speaks more widely of how we as a society view pregnancy and mothers – that somehow, when a woman becomes a mother, her other passions should take a backseat.
In Low and Rathimalar’s journey to bloom, however, lies the spark of possibility.
When Low discovered she was pregnant earlier this year, she asked Rathimalar to replace her in a show she had committed to.
“But her response to me was, ‘What do you mean you can’t do it?’” says Low. “And you try saying no to her!”
Rathimalar instead proposed that they both perform together for the show.
“I told her, the only question is, why not?” says Rathimalar. “It’s been done. Pregnant women have danced before.”
Low, too, realised that she was allowing herself to be held back by unfounded fears.
“Especially in an Asian society, there are so many taboos and restrictions surrounding pregnancy. I have been dancing for close to 20 years though, and I know my body. I know how much I can do,” she says.
So the foundation for bloom was laid.
The performance, however, is much more than a collaboration between two dancers. It is the coming together of two women to help each other realise their dreams. And if Low’s determination is one part of the process, the other is Rathimalar’s willingness to enable her to take part.
Workplaces and organisations that struggle with providing support for working mothers could learn a thing or two from the two dancers. Their rehearsals are well-planned, relatively short bursts of intense practice, and Low brings her three-year-old twins along so she can watch them. It is a routine they established back in 2014, when they first collaborated on a contemporary dance work titled rehab, which continued with return in 2015. For Rathimalar, such a mode of working is not a concession, but rather, simply part and parcel of working with a woman who is also a mother.
“It’s simple: I want to work with January. This is just the most effective way to do that,” she says.
Low, meanwhile, emphasises how valuable it is for her to be able to continue pursuing her passions while being a mother.
“Of course my priorities have shifted; my kids and my husband are my top concerns now. But it is easy to feel like I’m not ‘me’ anymore. Dancing lets me have my own identity. It keeps me whole while sharing myself with my family,” she says.
For the two women, it is simultaneously a fresh beginning and a return to their roots. Both trained in the Indian classical dance form of odissi under Datuk Ramli Ibrahim at the Sutra Dance Theatre before striking out on their own.
Rathimalar has over two decades of dancing experience, and specialises in odissi, bharatanatyam, and modern contemporary dance. She worked with the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company in London before returning to Malaysia. She continues to choreograph and perform, while also working as a dance educator. Low, meanwhile, trained in classical ballet before focusing on odissi and bharatanatyam for fifteen years. She is currently based in Jakarta and plans to continue dancing after her third child.
The bloom show is their first odissi performance as independent artistes, and it is an exciting yet daunting prospect for them.
“It struck me that bloom goes against everything we’ve been taught, about what is appropriate, what a dancer’s body should look,” says Rathimalar. “I realised our show would reach people in the industry and even those in India, and I got nervous about what they would say.”
“Our dance background is very patriarchal in many ways,” says Low. “Often, there is a subtle belittling of the feminine life of a woman. For example, one has to choose between getting married and being a dancer, or being a mother and being a dancer. Hence why we decided it was important to do a show like this, that breaks down some of these so-called rules.”
The confidence to do so, she adds, comes from their years of experience and hard work, which allows them to understand the rules of performing odissi but also takes into account their own needs and motivations as dancers.
Says Rathimalar: “Tradition is important, yes, but we also need to find the freedom within these traditions. If we don’t create these spaces for ourselves, to embrace our womanhood, who will?”
Rathimalar Govindarajoo and January Low’s bloom will be staged at Bobo KL, 65-1, Jalan Bangkung, Bangsar in Kuala Lumpur) from Oct 21-23. Showtime: 9pm. Tickets are RM50. For reservations, call 03-2092 5002. Facebook: Bobo KL.