writers on dancing

Fusion Centered

"East as Center"
Chitresh Das Dance Company
ODC Theatre, San Francisco
May 29, 2003

reviewed by Paul Parish

There have been a lot of fusion experiments in the Bay Area over the last ten years—Flamenco and Butoh artists collaborating, say, or Chinese folk-dance and African-American dance companies performing together. The results have been mostly mixed—curiosities, perhaps. A collaboration between Purnima Jha, the Kathak soloist, and Rosa Montoya, the flamenco diva, was a great deal of fun and illuminating in many ways (it caused one to look very carefully at exactly how the shod foot and the bare foot with its henna’ed tendons accomplished their stampings). Some have been only succeses d'estime, and at worst, only the politically correct could love the results.

But at the end of May, Pandit Chitresh Das, the Kathak master who settled in Marin County three decades ago and began teaching Westerners his art, brought together masters and disciples from three decidedly different disciplines to create a performance of remarkable harmony of purpose and effect. Jointly, Das and his best students, together with Guru Govindan Kutty (a Kathakali master from Calcutta) and his distinguished young student Surajit Sarkar, and the Balinese choreographer Ni Ketut Arini and her adult star pupil Kompiang Metri Davies, performed “The Abduction of Sita,” a highly dramatic episode of the great Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana.

What made this hold together as a project is three-fold: 1) the remarkable respect and deference each guru gave the other artists, 2) the extremely high quality of the performers, and 3) the fact that the Ramayana is a sacred text for all Hindu culture, as important for the various cultures of India and Indochina as the story of the parting of the Red Sea is for Christians and Jews everywhere. Indeed, the Kathak (from north India), the Kathakali (south India), and the Balinese court culture (Indonesia) each cherish a danced version of the epic, which is performed in extenso, in great and entertaining detail, often lasting several days, in their festival season.

So the demon Ravana can be portrayed in the Kathak style, with much stamping of feet, attacking and carrying off by force the beautiful Sita, who fights back in the Balinese style, flailing him unavailingly with her sash, and each portrayal is convincing, and marvelously subtle, and the web of the myth is like tensile steel, tight and powerful and enthralling.

All three traditions value storytelling; indeed the word Kathak means story-telling. So does Kathakali (story-telling dance). Concert performances we've gotten used to over the years almost always take the form of a lecture demonstration, with a preliminary section that lays out the elements—the story that's going to be told and a selection of the dancer's exercises (footwork, pirouettes, etc.)—followed by a second section that shows how they can be used to tell that story in an atmosphere of heightened importance. "East as Center" held true to that format.

The Kathak dancer works like a one-man band—different parts of the body perform completely different tasks, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The dancer is dressed in a knee-length silk tunic over long trousers, as one might see an Indian person dressed on the street, except that the make-up is elaborate, there are leggings made of tiny bells, and the feet are bare. The footwork is meant to produce sound effects that heighten the story. It looks like flamenco, but it sounds different—the flat of the foot can slap the floor, while the bare heel can make a deep hollow thunder. By standing still and producing a tremor in one raised foot, the dancer can produce a rustling like 15 rattlesnakes in concert some distance away, or the quietest rain sifting through the leaves.

There are also highly refined techniques for the hands and for the face, especially the eyes. The face-work is impossible to misunderstand, the "natural" language of fear, shyness, laughter, as any Western mime would do it from Red Skelton to Baryshnikov (given the difference in manners). The hands, meanwhile, perform a beautified sign language that refers to things that can't be shown and (for a solo performer) carries the burden of the narrative. I have seen Das by himself make you see a whole village—the water rising, the children afraid of drowning, their anxious mothers, and the wrathful god Indra, who means to destroy this whole town which neglects him in favor of the boy-god, Krishna.

In the dramatic style, there is more use of large "natural" gesture, but the Kathak stance is still highly confined, mostly in first position, with a tendu at the end of a phrase for emphasis ("ta-dah!")—which contrasts considerably with the open, large positions of the Kathakali style, and also with the knock-kneed, bent-kneed posture of the Balinese Legong style for women, who resemble pigeons in a park, perched briefly, moving suddenly, heads wagging, arms and shoulders raised, fingers trembling like feathers, and eyes darting percussively (as if they were striking tiny chimes) above serene, cat-like smiles.

This night there were nearly a dozen musicians (many from India), and, to carry the story, at least eight primary agents dancing. Ram (Kathakali) and his brother Lakshma (Kathak), and Ram's bride Sita (Balinese), are assailed by the ogress Surpanakha, who has fallen desperately in love with Ram and tries to seduce him. But he turns her away, disingenuously suggesting that his brother Lakshman might be interested in her. Au contraire, Lakshman is horrified, and in his revulsion attacks her, cutting off her ear and out her tongue—whereupon she goes howling through the heavens to her brother, Ravana, the lord of the race of Apseras. She comes upon him dancing his devotions to Shiva, but her bloody state and horrible cries call him from his prayers, and enrage him. Hot for Ram's blood, Ravana goes to his uncle, whom he finds dancing in meditation and tries to incite to his cause. But Uncle Mariacha has encountered Ram already and knows that it will be the end of the power of the Apseras if they do battle with Ram, and he tries, unsuccessfully to calm Ravana. But nothing will do—and here's the plan: Uncle Maricha must disguise himself as a golden deer and entice Ram away from the house to hunt him, whereupon Ravana will disguise himself as a Brahman come to the house to beg alms, and trick Sita into coming out of doors, whereupon he will grab her. The plot has many twists, all of which provide wonderful excuses for a new style of dancing. The deer is particularly beautiful, Ravana's flight through the heavens in his mighty chariot is truly thrilling, and the fight in which the mighty eagle tires to rescue Sita but is defeated and has both wings cut off by Ravana's sword is very high drama, matched only by the heartbreaking scene in which Ram finds the eagle, hears the story, and grants the dying eagle salvation.

ODC Theater was set up with an orchestra dais stage right, and black panels hung at intervals deep at the back of the house—which when lit by the wizardly smoke and mirrors effects of Matthew Antaky very powerfully suggested the dappled forest floor, dawn in the forest, the palace of Ravana, the hermitage of his brother, the country home of Ram, even the upper atmosphere where Ravana in his chariot encounters the eagle in full flight.

Balinese women's technique has many features that look modeled on the behavior of birds—and the honored artist, Ni Ketut Arini, who danced the eagle, gave perhaps the most moving performance of the entire evening. The fight was both heroic and doomed, and her death in Ram's arms was an awesome consummation, one beautifully modulated diminuendo, down to the quietest hush.

At that point—as throughout—the cooperation of the musicians, the dancers, and the work of the lighting designers and technicians was extraordinary.

copyright Paul Parish 2003

Photo:  An unidentified drummer (right) accompanies the dancing of Guru Govindan Kutty (center) as Mariacha, who tries to dissuade Chitresh Das (right) as Ravanna from making war on Ram.



Want to learn more about kathak?

history of the art form

Asavari School of Music and Dance
Very comprehensive site, with information about the music and dance of India.

Indian Dances
with links to information about Indian culture and mythology

Chitresh Das Dance Company
includes information about the hsitory of Kathak in India and California

Art India Net
Includes a list of gurus

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(c) 2003 by danceviewwest
page last updated: July 19, 2003