True Guru

at Link’s Hall, May 3-6

By Puja Lalmalani

Two little Indian-American girls sat in the back row at Link’s Hall, packed for “True Guru.” One wore a white-and-black velvet dress with black patent leather Mary Janes while the other was dressed in an orange-and-pink traditional Indian salvar kameez. The two friends fidgeted and chatted, waiting for the performance to begin.

That image captured the nature of the evening: East meets West. This fusion of styles and genres of music and dance was produced under curator Janet Schmid’s directive: “Let it have a thread of India.” Dancers Schmid, Shanti Kumari Johnson, and Pranita Jain and members of her troupe, Kalapriya, joined musicians Ben Harbert, Scott Rosenburg, and Universe Neo to create pieces that can’t be categorized–at least not yet. This kind of effort represents a brand-new genre in need of a name: fusion art, perhaps.

The production opened with the solo Pushpanjali, which like the closing dances presents bharata natyam in its classical form. Kalapriya dancer Taposhi Jarvis is a small woman with a strong stage presence: her precise, sharp movement establishes the basis for the fusion pieces to follow. Choreographed motions for the neck and eyes, an elaborate costume and makeup, feet adorned with bells, and rich Carnatic music make this piece seem exactly what India is often taken for: exotic.

Schmid’s Scat Alarippu was the perfect transition, demystifying the dance. Performing to recorded vocals by Sheila Chandra, Schmid mixes modern and bharata natyam, playing with eye movements and subtle hand gestures. Schmid, who’s studied with Jain over the past two years, isn’t yet fully trained as a bharata natyam dancer, but because she wasn’t born with bells on her feet her perception of the form is creative and unconventional. Only a curious outsider can deliver that sense of exploration, discovery, and raw energy. In this piece as well as her other, Ganesha Walk–set to music by hip-hop artist Universe Neo–Schmid makes it seem that everyone can dance. When she looks directly at the audience, she seems to invite you to the stage to come and play, as she’s done over the past two years, learning not only bharata natyam but tabla from Harbert.

By contrast Johnson, founder of the Pilsen Ballet and Dance Company, reminds us that dance is not a free-for-all in Rupak, which showcases her strength, coordination, precision, and ballet training. Performed to Harbert’s composition of the same name–a variation on a traditional solo tabla recital–Rupak is divided into multiple sections. Each one begins with Harbert and Johnson reciting the Indian syllables of the musical phrase, followed by Johnson’s dance translation. But when she faces Harbert, standing in profile to the audience, it’s clear she’s not completely comfortable with the spoken rhythms. Or perhaps the problem is that this position excludes the audience and reduces the piece’s energy. At any rate the spoken exchanges seem to be between music teacher and student–a sort of work in progress–and Johnson’s polish and confidence resume only when she dances. Strongly influenced by ballet, her movement is truly woven with a “thread of India,” and the contrast between the pointed foot of classical ballet and the flexed foot of bharata natyam is intriguing.

Any uncertainty or weakness disappears in Johnson’s Indian Lotus Moon, inspired by her recent trip to India. This piece reveals that Johnson is not only a dancer and choreographer but a photographer, poet, and musician. Accompanied by the bells on her ankles, Johnson mixes flamenco-influenced footwork with the north Indian dance form of kathak (she’s part Mexican and part Indian); she also plays the manjira (Indian hand cymbals) while dancing. This unclassifiable, very musical piece was the strongest, most vivid example of cultural fusion on the program, blending the lines and the rules of the dances to create something entirely new.

In Toledo, which illustrates three critical periods in Spanish music history, Harbert plays electric sarod (an Indian string instrument) and Rosenburg plays reeds, paying homage to Harbert’s guru, Luis de Pablo. Separately the two play well, but combining these instruments is not easy because of their widely different sounds. After a slow start, the two finally meld into a team during the final movement, “Alhambrismo.” Then the harmonious conversation of this unlikely pair of instruments is like a gift we’ve been waiting for, a satisfying conclusion.

Kalapriya presented three other pieces, among them the duet Jai Jai Shankar and a delightful solo padam, both choreographed by artistic director Jain. In the purely expressional padam, focused on hand movements and facial expressions, Jain proved a natural storyteller–her eyes were her words, traveling from profound happiness to deep sorrow in a moment. Kalapriya’s tillana was an appropriate close to the evening, presenting the bharata natyam techniques and rhythms in their pure, abstract form. But even here Kalapriya experimented: the three dancers dispense with their bells and the traditional costume, wearing instead the simple black cotton salvar kameez with red dupatas (sashes). Demystifying the look and style of the East, they and the other performers prove that even ancient art is constantly evolving.