Sheena Chundee and Deepa P Mani have both been dancing since the age of five. While Chundee trained full-time as a ballerina under a scholarship at the Royal Ballet School in London, Mani grew up in Chennai, India, learning bharatanatyam – a form of classical Indian dance that first found form in Tamil Nadu.

Now based in Melbourne, the two crossed paths after Mani read an interview with Chundee in a 2019 issue of Frankie magazine. Intrigued by seeing a South Asian ballet dancer – especially one posing in a tutu outside a pub – she reached out to connect and discovered they share more than just a love of dance.

Chundee, a Malvern East local, is the founder and director of Rebel Stepz, an arts organisation running programs and workshops with schools, community centres, corporate groups, and mental and physical health specialists since 2010. Having won a scholarship herself and understanding that for many people exposure and accessibility to the arts is limited, her mission is to “take the elitism out of it”, she tells Broadsheet.

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Mani, meanwhile, heads Chandralaya School of Dance in Bentleigh, teaching bharatanatyam as well as cross-cultural dance commissions and diversity workshops across city and regional schools.

Now the pair has come together with Touch, a new performance fusing the worlds of ballet and bharatanatyam. Showcasing at this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival, it explores culture and connection through the “touch points between the two dancers”, Chundee explains.

The concept has been something like two years in the making, taking form over many conversations uncovering the similarities and differences between their artforms and journeys to making art.

“Both ballet and bharatanatyam are age-old classical artforms coming from the East and West and so they pack a lot of tradition,” Mani says. While the first operates under French terminology and the latter is based on Sanskrit, the basic hand and feet postures are very alike, she explains. “If you start to peel back the onion … there are so many similarities.”

The differences became more apparent when the duo started working together in the studio. Physically, the challenge was to “come up with movements that represent both ballet and bharatanatyam for two dancers who are built differently and have been trained differently”, Chundee says. “Finding our own language and almost creating a new genre of dance is kind of what we’re doing.”

Touch explores the lives of two South Asian women who’ve taken different routes – one from the East and the other from the West – and draws parallels between their experiences. Accompanied by three musicians and a backup dancer, Mani and Chundee challenge bias and lean into weighty themes like respect, acceptance and prejudice.

The convergence of classical ballet and classical Indian dance is a rare one, Mani says, and “it sends a beautiful message of diversity”. And there’s opportunity for audiences to reflect on their own cultural heritage, too.

Mani talks a lot about the merits of intercultural collaboration and fostering genuine diversity on stage. “There is power in bringing cultures together,” she says. “You get better relationships and a stronger sense of identity when you interact with somebody because you start to respect and accept each other for who you are.”

Chundee and Mani are busy women – both run their own businesses – so rehearsal time is meticulously scheduled. Often it’s Zoom meetings and phone calls, but the pair recently came off the back of an intensive two-week stint choreographing and preparing in the studio. “We have a lot of fun,” Chundee says. “It’s rare for two artists to come together, have a good time and actually be on the same page.”

Touch premieres at Melbourne Fringe Festival from Oct 4–7 at the Sylvia Staehli Theatre, 150 Princes Street, Carlton North

This article first appeared in Domain Review, in partnership with Broadsheet.