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Q&A: Choreographer Janak Khendry adapts Paradise Lost for dance

(photo: David Hou)

It may be the 35th anniversary of his eponymous dance company, but Toronto choreographer and artistic director Janak Khendry hasn’t been taking it easy. For the past three years Khendry has been focusing on one of the biggest challenges of his career: an adaptation of John Milton’s 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost.

During the two-hour performance, Khendry mixes contemporary dance with classical forms of Indian dance to depict Milton’s archetypal struggle between good and evil, and to draw parallels between the literary work and ancient Indian scriptures. As part of his extensive research, Khendry brought in two Milton scholars as advisers: Tulsiram Sharma and Philip Pullman, who is best known as the U.K. author of The Golden Compass.

Q&Q spoke to Khendry prior to the performance, which runs Dec. 6″“8 at Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre.

Why did you want to adapt Paradise Lost? It goes way, way back to when I was a student. We read the shorter version, and I couldn’t understand the whole thing, but I loved it. I have a strange habit of keeping ideas in the back of my mind, where they keep germinating. Finally, when the right time comes, they emerge.

For the last 11 years I’ve been working with a very important Indian scholar, Dr. Tulsiram Sharma. We were researching another project on 4,000 years of the Ganga’s history, and out of nowhere I asked him if he wanted to do it. His face lit up, as his doctorate from the University of London was on Paradise Lost.

How did Philip Pullman become involved? I went to the bookstore and there was a huge shelf with copies of Paradise Lost. I pulled a book out, brought it to the studio and started reading Philip Pullman’s introduction. I was laughing loudly at this dry British humour, thinking, “I have to know this person.” I looked him up on the Internet, and called the international operator right away.

Is there a connection between India and Paradise Lost? In the book, Milton mentions India 11 times. Also, Books VIII, IX, and X echo content in Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, two very important Indian scriptures. It always amazes me how two minds from two different cultures could have the same thought and write it down.

What were the biggest challenges in creating this work? The writing is so complicated and has taken a lot of planning and thinking. With writing you can move back and forth in time, but in dance, you can’t go back to something on stage. So I had to work out a system to develop the story in sequential order.

How much liberty did you take with the story? I stuck very close to the Indian scriptures. I don’t change those at all. But choreographers and artists do have the liberty of how they want to present the story.

This interview has been edited and condensed.