Of course, she hastens to explain, it's not the ethnic dance of all Sri Lankans, just the Sinhalese majority. More specifically, it's an adaptation of a ritual dance from Kandy, the last kingdom to fall on the island. In the 1950s, following independence, a wave of postcolonial angst arose in the country, and the choreographer Chitrasena was the one who responded to the hunger for national cultural symbols by contemporising the form: giving it a syllabus, making it classical. (Venuri claims he wasn't just influenced by Indian choreographers, but also by Martha Graham!)
She hasn't danced Kandyan for yonks, but she obliged us with a simple 2-minute demonstration. I'll upload the YouTube once we get to Singapore. (The music she's using is adorably tainted by the voice of a Chilean girl, who lent her the recording.)
Venuri studied Kandyan dance under Chitrasena's wife and daughter. But she didn't feel at home in the national company.
Venuri: The company was trying to preserve the tradition, but it’s a created tradition. The meaning of the ritual has been lost. Now it is almost a sacred space – to play with that or to change that is problematic.
The way the dance is evolving in Sri Lanka is either as a traditional dance form or either as entertainment, with the influence of Bollywood. So it’s become quite a provocative dance form.
Back in Sri Lanka, the 30-year civil war had just ended. And while the rest of the world thought this was a jolly good thing, folks at home were worried. The government had basically won the war by killing off all the heads of the LTTE (better known as the Tamil Tigers), treating all of them as war criminals, trying to forge a new national identity based on unity rather than even acknowledging diversity.
Venuri: There were a lot of people who are still displaced in the Tamil community, the 20% minority of our country. And also the government is denying that there was any torture or war crimes that were committed, because of possible pressure from the West. So they’re saying they don’t need psychosocial support.
What can she do? She dances. She's staged a piece at the Colombo Dance Platform, the nation's first ever space for contemporary dance, combining a live poet and a video artist: three Sinhalese women, crying out the pain of the Tamils.
Venuri: It’s problematic for me: I’m using the dance of the Sinhalese – because it’s what I know – to maybe portray the other.
It’s still a work in progress. It feels different every time I do it.
Venuri: During the making of the piece, the last IDP [internally displaced person] population was being resettled, and they were being resettled in a place where they could see their homes which were taken over by the military. But the song is saying, “Don’t take me home. Do you think I can live if I can take me home?”
here’s a story of the LTTE coming to recruit a little boy, and his mother hide him. And the recruiters say, we’ll wait for him then, then. And the little boy suffocates inside his hiding place.
We in the South we say everyone who is Tamil is in the LTTE. But here it’s a mother who’d rather bury her child and allow him to suffocate than join the LTTE.
We asked Venuri how her audience had responded. Great, she said - but then it was in Colombo, and almost everyone was Sinhalese. But there were some mothers and wives of disappeared people who came, and they asked her to bring the show to the East, to the North, to show among their own communities.
And it's ridiculous - I've realised I'm tearing up not at the atrocities, but at how people resist the role of the oppressor - white Australian, Sinhalese Sri Lankan - and try to speak for the silenced, knowing all the while that the silenced can and will speak for themselves, but that their voices too can help.
How we try and atone for the sins of our people. However impossible this may be.