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Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Kanopy Dance returns to the stage with ‘Winter Fantasia: Reimagined’

Dancer, choreographer Udbhav Desai draws inspiration from experience with Indian festivals
Image courtesy of Shawn Harper

Madison-based dance academy Kanopy Dance is celebrating traditional Indian dance with their upcoming performance, “Winter Fantasia: Reimagined.”

Shows will take place from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3 at Overture Center for the Arts on State Street. There will also be an interactive, family-oriented performance in Kids in the Rotunda Nov. 11.

Kanopy Dance Directors Lisa Thurrell and Robert Cleary were praised for the academy’s 2022 Madison performances. In “Winter Fantasia: Reimagined,” they serve as co-artistic directors and choreographers. They include the traditional “Garba” dance in the shows. “Garba” celebrates the Hindu goddess “Durga,” a protector of all that is good in the world, according to the Kanopy Dance website.


The event aims to emphasize different dance forms, incorporating Scandinavian folklore and American musical scores to embody the idea of winter with Garba as its central piece, according to the Kanopy Dance website.

Thurrell and Cleary have invited Virginia-based freelance dancer Udbhav Desai to choreograph and act as guest performer for “Winter Fantasia: Reimagined” after he worked for the academy the previous year.

Desai is originally from Gujarat, India, where he was initially introduced to the culture of Garba through Navaratri, an important Hindu festival commemorating the victory of Hindu goddess Durga against the demon Mahishasura over a period of nine days.

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The mixing of diverse cultures and people leads to many variations of how the festival is celebrated across the subcontinent. But, in Gujarat, the festivities begin each night with small groups of people living on the same street dancing and singing to the traditional Garba songs. Oftentimes, there won’t even be any musicians, only a singer, Desai said.

Over the course of the night, each group proceeds to the center of the city until thousands crowd its streets, and the festivities burst into action. Men and women dance in circles around a “deepam” — a lamp — or an idol of the goddess Durga, beating wooden sticks called Dandiyas together and making a profound sound.

The night is filled with music, the golden glow of lamps and bright colors from clothing which is often ornamented with red, yellow and orange colors. This would repeat every night for nine nights, sometimes even 10, Desai said.

As a child, such an experience left Desai with a profound appreciation for his culture.

“Growing up, every time Navratri was coming around, you could tell by the atmosphere, everyone was getting more and more excited,” Desai said. “People would buy all sorts of costumes and jewelry and make all sorts of sweets and snacks to get ready for the festivities. Growing up, it was like Christmas for me.”

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Later, Desai and his parents immigrated to Canada and then to the U.S., where he completed high school, he said. He then attended Northwestern University for a degree in chemical engineering, where he joined Northwestern’s South Asian Club which held an annual Garba event. 

But it was not until Desai’s move to Madison that his husband, a ballet dancer, introduced him to Madison’s many dance companies including Madison Contemporary Dance and Kanopy Dance, where he began his freelance dance career.

This year’s show, “Winter Fantasia: Reimagined” narrates the story of a woman, Rashmi, on the eve of Navratri. She is walking with her friends in the desert — a climate common to Gujarat — and is preparing for the festivities to come. Rashmi is sad in remembrance of her friend Pankaj — played by Desai — who has moved far away.

This is one of three acts that Desai composed in “Chalo Ramiye” or “let’s play” in Gujarati, according to the Kanopy Dance website.

Inspired by his own experiences and emotions surrounding leaving his country and his hometown, Desai uses the performance to show Madison that even though people move apart, their memory and spirit continue to linger in our hearts, he said.

The story of Rashmi and Pankaj — performed as a duet — is one of the many aspects of the show inspired from Desai’s personal experience with Garba.

Another place Desai draws inspiration is from Bijalben Patel, or “Bijal Masi,” as he called her — his mother’s best friend who made dresses for Garba dances. A few years ago, Bijalben lost her life to breast cancer, leaving the work she did and the clothes she made with Desai’s mother, who bought them from her.

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Many of those clothes were worn during the festivities and through the Garba dances. Later, Desai’s mother donated the clothes Masi made to “Winter Fantasia : Reimagined.” The clothes are used for the women dancers, integrating tradition into the show.

“They represent Masi’s legacy and contribution to Garba,” Desai said. “It would be her mark here in Madison.”

Additional preparations have been made to procure men’s dresses from India to further preserve the originality of the act. 

Through the Chalo Ramiye show, Desai and Kanopy Dance aspire to show Madison the diverse cultures of the world and what it means to celebrate Navratri and the joy of Garba, Desai said.

“I would like for people to understand who the Gujarati people are, how Navratri is celebrated and what even is Navratri,” Desai said. “I would like to add that element of my culture to Madison.”

This performance season, Desi and Kanopy Dance bring the full flush of Garba color along with the jubilation and celebration of the diverse cultures of the world under the common emotions shared by all.

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