Choreographer and singer Bageshree Vaze first studied classical Indian dance while growing up in St. John’s, Nfld. She has named her recent DanceWorks program of new and remounted works Paratopia. Also the name of the new group dance that closes the evening, the word can mean both “displacement” and “alternate reality”. Collectively, the works on the program acknowledge the ever-evolving nature of Indian dance forms — and of life itself, which has carried Vaze to a new home in Toronto.
The program opens with In My (Dis) Place, a solo that grapples with the problem of defining a personal performance space within perpetual migration and relocation. Vaze begins the work on her knees, carving beautiful mudras around her torso with fingers, hands and arms. A bronze statue of the Hindu god Shiva (in the dancing form of Nataraja, which he assumes in Indian mythology) discreetly graces the opposite side of the stage.
Vaze starts to speak as she bends to tie kathak bells (ghungrus) around her ankles. She talks about how each dancer ties them a little differently, then wonders about finding the place and time for ritual, the place and time for respect. She then starts to sing (Vaze is an acclaimed singer and has several CDs to her credit), dancing all the while. Vaze is a riveting performer, grounded and musical, with great presence. Her dancing and singing affects a sense of calm and peace that permeates the house. Sadly — to me at least — the rest of the program didn’t quite live up to the promise of this gorgeous solo.
Internationally acclaimed Lucknow, India-based guest artist Anuj Mishra makes an appearance in the next work, Damaru/Dhamaar. The performer, along with tabla player Vineet Vyas, references the cosmic dance of Nataraja in a traditional dance/drum rhythmic dialogue known as dhamaar. As a performer, Mishra has a very different energy from Vaze and it’s fascinating to observe the juxtaposition of approaches. Mishra is solid technically, with a quality of weighted control that serves him well in the many show-stopping turning sequences. We don’t get to see classical performers of Mishra’s calibre every day so I was grateful for the opportunity to observe his majestic comportment, fiery footwork and his mastery of a sophisticated rhythmic rapport with Vyas on the tablas.
Damaru/Dhamaar also features film projections by media artist Elysha Poirier. On a large screen at the back of the performance space, images of iconic stars from the classical Indian dance realm are manipulated as a kind of prelude to the live dance. Media artist Poirier is a frequent dance collaborator (she often works with William Yong and Zata Omm Dance Projects) and her digital work has a painterly, precise quality that serves dance performance well.
Navarasas is another solo for Vaze, this one an excerpt of the 2011 choreography Avatar (9). The dance portrays the nine emotions in classical Indian dance — including love, wonder and fear. Vaze’s face is expressive throughout but I couldn’t quite read how the steps were supporting what I was reading in her face. Perhaps this was intentional as Vaze moved gracefully from one avatar/incarnation to the next. It was certainly fun to watch.
Anuj Mishra returns to the stage for Tarana, which again features singing by Vaze. The movement here was more frenetic. Mishra is all round-cheeked smiles and crazy spinning, his interpretation celebrating the origins of kathak dance at India’s royal court in the sixteenth century. These traditional/contemporary tribute pieces are important; kathak is a living art and Vaze is dedicated to presenting the form in all its complexity. That includes respect for its roots as well as a willingness to break new ground. But for those of us not as familiar with Indian classical dance forms, it can be a challenge with works such as Avatar (9) and Tarana to discern the nuances of where long-established vocabularies meet innovation, as well as how and why.
This brings us to the new ensemble work Paratopia, which closed the show. For me, this was the biggest disappointment of the evening. It was touted as a combination of classical Indian dance and hip-hop, tabla and beatboxing, which, as described in the program — “… explores an alternate reality through different interpreters, through the lens of kathak dance and Indian classical rhythmic language.” The work features Vaze, Vyas, contemporary dancers Marianna Rosato, Samantha Schleese and Daniel McArthur, hip-hop dancer Daniel “Kidloco” Gomez and Cj Mairs aka Killa Beatz, a beatboxing champion.
I got a bad feeling though when the performers entered wearing dark sunglasses, and I could not, for the life of me, figure out why. I later read in notes on the DanceWorks website that the work was referencing the 1999 feature film The Matrix. As Vaze explains it, the cult film is full of allusions to Indian mythology. Though this information wasn’t available at the time I was watching the show (program note, please!), I can see in retrospect how approaching the piece armed with this knowledge could have made it a lot more fun (me sitting stupidly in the audience speculating about the possible connections isn’t anything but sad). The slow-motion martial arts moves, the sunglasses, all that black clothing, Poirier’s remarkable projection of the words representing kathak/tabla rhythms (known as “bols” or mnemonic syllables) — “dhas”, “thin”, “dhat”, “dhaar”, etc. — the letters of which end up descending vertically on the screen in mimicry of the famous code melt in the movie — yes, I can recall now it was all there.
That initial lack of comprehension admittedly may be down to me and my perhaps limited expectations of what’s possible with kathak, but Paratopia itself failed in another, more fundamental way: the art forms sharing the stage weren’t really speaking to each other. The concept of collaboration between diverse forms with shared commonalities is a noble and potentially exciting one, but the reality is too often separate solitudes operating in isolation beside each other. Even if they respect each other’s place on the stage, what’s the point if the partnership doesn’t read as a deep and integrated one? For all the skill in the component execution and all there is to admire in the intent, Paratopia the dance felt like an opportunity lost. Nonetheless, Paratopia the evening-length program encapsulated a universe of ideas about dancing ancient forms in a modern world.~