SPEAK: Rina Mehta and Rachna Nivas Do Chitresh Das Proud with Kathak, Tap, and Jazz

Somewhere, during the Saturday night performance of SPEAK at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, the reincarnation of kathak master Chitresh Das was drinking a mango la ssi and smiling.

Das (d. 2015) was the Baryshnikov or Balanchine of India; a dance master revered for his mastery of the art in performance but also for his massive contributions to dance education and propagation of the form. But he was also a risk-taker and an innovator. I was lucky enough to see Das and virtuoso tapper Jason Samuels Smith perform together twice in the span of nine years, in an award-winning show called India Jazz Suites. SPEAK is a tornado of kathak and tap, presented by female dancers from Das’ dance company, and a testament to Das’ groundwork—no pun intended—in marrying the two dance forms.

The evening began auspiciously, with the first act, “Maya”. Two sets of musicians flanked the stage, the Hindustani musicians on the left, the Westerners on the right. Kathak performance music can be predictable; the tal rhythm structures the work of the table drums, sitar, and harmonium as a vocalist utters syllables mimicking the sound of the drums themselves. The dancers then perform either a predetermined choreographed sequence or an improvisation matching the called-out syllables, not unlike Eminem’s rap-battle retorts in “8 Mile” albeit with makeup and ankle bells (ghungroo).

This performance was different, arresting, full of personality and not just a really good School of Kathak dance recital. SPEAK - Photo by Margo Mortiz

Vaibhav Mankad quickly arrested the audience with his seductive vocals, pitch-perfect even when a cappella (he’s been a professional singer since the age of 15). Impressively coiffed Satyaprakash Mishra (think pre-haircut The Weeknd, but Indian) commanded his tabla while calling out his tes and tas to the dancers.

Rina Metha and Rachna Nivas, both former principal dancers with the Chitresh Das Dance Company, maintain ambitious goals for kathak dance; that it will be a bridge to social change and human empowerment. Fitting, then, that “Maya” centered on Durga and Kali, the warrior mother goddess and goddess of destruction; fitting that before and after the performance, the production declared its support for that day’s March For Our Lives, led by the school-shooting survivors of Parkland, Florida.

Metha radiated calm and power as Durga, while tap diva Michelle Dorrance skittered and leapt around her as the furious, energetic Kali. The Western musicians, with Tabari Lake on bass, Carmen Staaf on piano, and an equally charismatic percussionist on the drum kit (Allison Miler) melded their sound effortlessly with that of the traditional musicians. It was an ice cream sundae of art.

Nivas, though trained by Das as well, is an entirely different dancer; dynamic, energetic, playful, and a master of the arched eyebrow so important in this style of dance. In her traditional Kathak showcase solo, she introduced Das-level irreverence and whimsy; power spins and turns punctuated with seductive looks and playful midair ankle jiggles to make her ghungroo tinkle.

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, a tap veteran who was…Michael Jackson’s tap instructor, strutted out incredibly complex rhythms while looking from the waist up like a blissful yogi describing her book club’s latest choice. Her ability to focus her energy and isolate her feet was mesmerizing. This contrasted sharply with Dorrance’s full-body, fiery delivery. Sumbry-Edwards’ traditional tap solo brought the house down. I wished I’d seen her in Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk when I had the opportunity.

The production permutated every possible combination of the four styles of artistry on display. Tap dancers grinned as they tapped to a tabla. Nivas and Metha spun and slapped their feet to jazz. Both sets of dancers improvised with both sets of musicians, unable to suppress huge grins. The piece “Chalan” an instrumental with all the players, meandered a bit, but “One” with all the dancers and musicians, fully  exemplified Das’ vision; that kathak should be powerful, that it could fraternize with other art forms, that it could change the world.

Any future SPEAK performances will be noted here.

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