Usha Gupta’s “Asht Nayika” was the first performance in the 25th anniversary season presented by the Brian Webb Dance Company in Edmonton. This fusion exploration brought together kathak dance, Usha Gupta’s South Asian form, as well as flamenco and modern dance to explore the central theme translated as “Eight different states of women.”
For this work, cross-cultural explorer Gupta employs three dancers, four musicians and herself as narrator and singer. The musicians are seated, western music-style, facing the dance performers in the lowered pit with Gupta sitting downstage-left, bridging the gap between the musicians and dancers. (This is a noted change from Gupta’s premiere modern/kathak fusion “Passages” where the musicians are seated onstage, democratically alongside the dance performance). The strong narrative of the piece, spoken by Gupta, is personified by the dancers as they flow through different character states interpreted in their particular styles of movement. The individual dancing of each performer accompanied by the intriguing mix of cello, violin and flamenco guitar and the soothing, contrasting tabla rhythms were the definite highlights of the work.
Contemporary dancer and collaborator Tamara Bliss was a joy to watch with her technical ease and refined grace, which brought a quality of maturity to the work throughout. Karrie Darichuk, longtime student and collaborator of Gupta, represented well the sophistication of the kathak tradition. She has developed into an incredibly engaging and confident performer and her natural stage presence, highlighted even more by the complexity of kathak-inspired facial expressions, brought a genuine commitment to the pieces story-telling focus. The rhythms of her feet, coordinated with the fluid upper body and arm movement, were hypnotizing to watch. She seemed to have such an easy command of the many dynamics employed throughout her body as she skillfully played off the complex rhythms of the tabla.
Flamenco dancer Flavia Robles was well suited to Gupta’s narrative theme, performing within a tradition that inherently offers up striking images of the archetypal strong, fierce woman. Her flamenco brought a new element to Gupta’s work and was the most interesting contrast employed in the piece. Robles’ tradition compares with Gupta’s in that it shares the strong connection between dancer and musician, particularly in terms of rhythm and how the dancer becomes part of the music with the percussive movement of the feet. Also reminiscent of kathak is flamenco’s strong commitment to shape, stance and eye focus, which when done well garners a certain reverence from the audience, as Robles showed.
Gupta employed these three dancers and their respective cultural styles to explore her central idea of celebrating women through female archetypes. What stands out more than this theme, however, is the obvious use of cross-cultural fusion, which forecasts an element of contrast throughout the work. Fusion creates a juxtaposition of different forms, how they merge and enhance each other’s properties through their differences. Bringing together differing forms creates an interesting tension through contrast, but as well, makes this contrast the chief entry point for the audience who may then, consciously or unconsciously, look for that element at play throughout the entire work. After setting up such a premise, one expects a follow-through in the statement of the work. The elements you choose to work with and how you explore them ultimately communicate to the audience.
Other than the fact that Gupta obviously genuinely delights in the beauty of the separate elements, there seemed to be no other awareness of these contrasts at play. The surface layering of simple form in the dance solos did not provide follow-through that I was expecting as an audience member. Where was the contrast of time and space? A string of solos joined by simple transitions of stage entrances and exits did not offer the exciting tension for which this choreography had potential. Where was the contrast of mood and emotion? A few foot stomps and frowning facial expressions did not express fully the breadth of a woman’s emotional psyche. Where was the exploration, suggested in the work’s use of three dance forms, of cultural contrast? Or of the contrast between traditional and contemporary forms which is perhaps the largest reference of contrast here?
The issue of what the Western modern dance form brought to Gupta’s statement was not clear; and, how the inclusion of this form helped define or redefine her point was a surface merely scratched upon. More importantly though, what did Gupta’s work bring to the “contemporary-art- conditioned” audience of the BWDC season? Unfortunately, the mere inclusion of cross-cultural referencing is no longer cutting-edge and, within the BWDC’s otherwise contemporary and often-daring “new dance” mandate, Gupta’s work awkwardly stands out. If the contrasts inherent in this presentation had been more fully addressed, an average performance might have been transformed into a truly engaging one.