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Chitresh Das Dance Company presents East as Center

featuring Guru Govindan Kutty, Chitresh Das and Ni Ketut Arini

by Karen Drozda

June 7, 2003 -- ODC Theater, San Francisco

The ODC Theater's penchant for hosting dance events that educate as well as entertain thrilled dance fans again last week, with sold-out performances of East as Center. Master Artist Chitresh Das is this year's ODC Theater Artist-in-Residence, and as such may present up to three times in whatever capacity best serves his work. East as Center introduces, compares and unites three traditional dance forms from India and Indonesia through a common literary tradition.

Three different traditional dance forms performed together provoke a fascinating visual dialogue of similarity and difference, that heightens the appreciation of each individual dance form as well as the traditions common to all three.

A common aspect of all three art forms is the incorporation of two distinct layers -- pure dance (Nritta) and dramatic storytelling. This evening's program featured a brief introduction of each style in its pure form, followed by a combination of all three forms in a dramatic storytelling passage from the Ramayana. Each dance form is presented by an internationally acclaimed master.

The pure dance introduction featured Balinese Legong, performed by Ni Ketut Arini and Kompiang Metri Davies, South Indian Kathakali performed by Guru Govindan Kutty with Surajit Sarkar, and North Indian Kathak performed by Master Chitresh Das with Jaiwanti Pamnani, Charlotte Moraga and Farah Yasmeen Shaikh. Each dance master was also the choreographer and composer for their part of the program, with Chitresh Das as Artistic Director for the entire performance.

First on stage were the Legong dancers, who entered dressed in elaborate gold brocade and brightly colored silk with flowered headdresses. Their bodies were corseted with the stiff brocade, and they entered the stage tipping their heads from side to side like clockwork dolls with two red flowers in their headdresses bobbling comically. Their faces were expressive masks, with exaggerated smiles or frowns and dramatic eye movements. Graceful hand gestures derive from nature, or are based on sacred Hindu mudras. Moving on bended knee, they seemed to float about the stage with inhuman grace.

The Kathakali dancers arrived with a similar bended knee, but with softer more flowing costumes and freer gestures of arms and legs. Their tradition is a dance-drama or, literally, "story-play." The actors do not speak, but interpret the verses and songs sung by accompanying vocalists. Storytelling involves the whole body and an elaborate scheme of facial expression, mime, and gesture. Interpretation of the text is mainly conveyed by hand gestures (mudras) that form a decipherable sign language.

The Kathak dance segment was divided into two parts -- the first danced by the four female Chitresh Das dancers, and the second a solo by Chitresh Das himself. They all wore brightly colored silk tunics with flaring skirts and matching pants, with the ghungroo -- a thick cuff of ankle bells. Their dance was not narrative at all, but emphasized the rhythms shared by the dance and the music in a continuous flow. The stamping of their bare feet and shaking of the ankle bells formed a counterpoint to the traditional Lucknow court instruments of pakhawaj drum, sarod and santoor. Each dancer also chants the beat while dancing, counting rhythmic tal cycles of 7, 10 or 16 beats. While traditionally musicians keep the beat (or tal) for the dancers, Chitresh Das has developed a technique he calls Kathak Yoga, where the dancer accompanies him or herself.

Chosen as a unifying element for the dramatic storytelling portion of the performance, the Ramayana is one of the two major epic tales of India. It celebrates the exploits of Ram, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu. Committed to writing in the third century AD, it continues to be tremendously popular throughout India and Southeast Asia.

The excerpt presented is called Seeta Apaharan or "Sita's Abduction," which occurs while Prince Ram is exiled in the forest with his brother Lakshman and wife Sita. Mischief occurs as they encounter various demons and animals of the forest.

Ram is danced by Surajit Sarkar in Kathakali style and costume, his wife Sita by Kompiang Metri Davies in Legong style and costume. The Demon King is danced by Chitresh Das, along with his sister and the Golden Deer in Kathak. The Vulture King is danced in Legong style by Ni Ketut Arini.

Leaving aside comparison and analysis, the performance was great fun to watch. Sita's Legong costume included a long train of heavy silk that started as the front panel of her skirt and trailed through her legs and about five feet behind her. Her every movement had to allow for the draping and placement of this train, as well as a long sash that hung down in front and trailed on the ground as she sank lower. Either element could easily trip her, yet she managed to be violently abducted by demons without appearing to notice the hinderance.

Another charming character was the Golden Deer, danced in Kathak (without bells). Using stylized hand and body movements, the dancer completely became a shy graceful deer who was also the Uncle of the Demon King in disguise.

The Vulture King who attempts to rescue Sita is powerful and dramatic, tragically losing both wings in his fight with the Demon King and dying as he directs Ram and Lakshman to Sita's rescue. Ni Ketut Arini's sensitive performance conveys a complexity of character and emotion in a very short period of time, through the stylized costume and gestures of the Balinese dance.

As each of the three styles used hand movements as narrative, the audience received a crash course in sign language. Ram's brother, Lakshman danced by Charlotte Moraga, displayed a distinctive hand and body posture that was used by other actors when talking about him. The gesture for "demon," a grimace with the tongue sticking out, was also discernable among the storytelling sequences. An English-language narrator also helped the audience follow the story line as the action unfolded.

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