East Meets West at Breen

A local Indian dance studio and performance group, Shri Kalaa Mandir (SKM), appeared recently at Breen Center for the Performing Arts along with 2 other Indian dance groups and a flamenco dancer. It was something of a variety show, but common elements such as rhythmic footwork helped to pull the program together. And, like a dance school recital, the concert gave us an opportunity to see a range of achievement, from the youngest students working to master the basics, to older students dancing at more advanced levels, to the teachers performing with the benefit of years of experience and practice.

“I have drawn on tremendous love and support from the community,” said Arts Without Borders (AWB) President Antara Datta in a welcoming speech. And indeed, looking around the auditorium we saw that Cleveland’s Indian community had come out in support as they had to every other Indian cultural event we’ve been to. When the actual dancing began – 8 young dancers from Datta’s own Anga Kala Kathak Academy (AKKA) – we saw that many parents in the audience were taking video with their cell phones, just like any dance school recital. But we were impressed by the amount of memorization that must have gone into mastering the 9-minute passage of foot stamping and arm gestures, all presented in perfect unison.

Live music for AKKA was provided by Indrani Chakraborty Khare on vocals, Mike Lukshis on tabla, Rohan Misra on sarangi – a bowed string instrument — with Datta herself providing a rhythmic chanting called parhant. We seldom sit down to listen to Indian music but these 4 – like all the musicians in this program —  more than lived up to their impressive bios. Their artistry along with what was apparently a thorough sound check and Breen’s tradition of acoustic excellence made for an excellent listening experience. (The program notes credit Sujay Datta for overall stage management and Sanjib Bhattacharya and Srini Ranganathan for sound and light help.)

The next dance from AKKA used 9 young women, 5 in red costumes and 4 in green. They were significantly older and more advanced than the previous group and, accordingly, their foot stamping rhythms and arm gestures were considerably more complex.

A third dance from AKKA used only 3 dancers in yellow and purple costumes. Their choreography was set to music with a meter of 10 called a jhaptaal, which we looked up later. Just to appreciate the challenges of jhaptaal, join us in clapping and waving in this traditional pattern: clap on 1, 3, and 8 and wave on 6. Got it? As if that’s not hard enough, do it with an accelerando as the dancers did.

SKM, Sujatha Srinivasan’s school, presented 2 Bharathanatyam dances, also with live music. Lalit Subramanian sang Carnatic vocals and played Nattuvangam, a pair of cymbals that play an important lead role in Bharathanatyam dancing; Ethirajan Ramanujam played Mridangam, a kind of drum; Sree Krishna Pasumarthy played flute; and Srinivasan provided rhythmic accompaniment.

The first SKM dance told a story from the childhood of Ganesh the elephant-headed god, how he won a race around the world by walking around his parents, Shiva and Parvati. After choreographer Srinivasan told the story in a verbal introduction, 3 dancers from her school danced it. For us, stories of the Hindu gods as children often tap into a particular charm.

In the 2nd SKM dance, 3 groups of 4 dancers performed. We recognized many of them from their recent performance at (https://clevelandconcertdance.com/2019/06/20/cpts-danceworks-wraps-up/) Cleveland Public Theater.

Another Indian classical dance form, Odissi, was represented by a single dancer, Monali Nandy Mazumdar. Unlike Datta and Srinivasan who teach in their own dance schools and choreographed their dances for this concert, Mazumdar has a day job unrelated to dance – she’s a postdoctoral scholar in Microbiology at Case Western Reserve University. The dance she performed for this concert was choreographed by Kelucharan Mohapatra, (1926 – 2004) who is credited with reviving Odissi dance in the 20th century. Mazumdar performed to recorded music.

Flamenco dancer La Romera moved to Cleveland in 2006 after a long career teaching and performing in Spain and on America’s west coast. She performed at Breen with Marija Temo on guitar and vocals and Liam Smith on percussion, either of whom could have held the stage as a solo act. Among other instruments, Smith played cajita, the “little box” from Afro-Peruvian music that has spread throughout world music.

La Romera apparently has students in Northeast Ohio, but none performed with her at Breen, which we found unfortunate. Student performances would have shown how the elements of flamenco are learned. And the students themselves would have attracted more members of the flamenco dance community to the concert. Is any flamenco performance complete without shouts of encouragement from the onlookers? 

After La Romera’s rather short segment, Datta and her musicians came back to perform two solo dances. The first included many turns. In the second solo the musicians played a very regular, repetitive phrase and she danced many different rhythms over it. During this part of the concert, Datta sang as well as danced, which we understand is a traditional part of Kathak. How different from ballet, where the dancers seldom speak or sing, but how like musical theater.

Srinivasan and her musicians returned to perform 3 solos. The first concerned Shiva and Shakti, the divine masculine and feminine energies. The second solo included mimed actions – picking a flower, for instance – and depicted a devotee’s love for Krishna, in which the human / divine relationship took on romantic overtones. The third solo, Bhogeendra Sayinam, was danced to a devotional hymn dedicated to Vishnu, supreme creator.

Kathak, Bharathanatyam, and Odissi are distinct dance forms but we could not help but notice how similar they were to each other. In all three forms, facial expression seems to be part of the choreography and we remain impressed by how much control the dancers seem to have over that aspect of their performance. All three forms also employ a good deal of rhythmic foot stamping with bells on the dancers’ ankles amplifying the rhythms; we enjoyed the way that the musicians sometimes supplied similar ringing timbres as accents. Kathak, Bharatanatyam, and Odissi also share a good deal with classical ballet in the way they use their heads; in all 4 classical dance forms, the eyes follow the moving hands, heads mostly spot in turns, and the dancers are able to spin and then stop with complete control, whether standing or kneeling.

We vividly remember a documentary film, Latcho Drom, that makes a compelling case for the theory that flamenco originated with nomadic people from Northern India, that it shares many characteristics with Indian classical dance, especially Kathak. On stage at Breen, Antara Datta, Sujatha Srinivasan, Monali Nandy Mazumdar, La Romera, their students, and their musical colleagues made a similar case. We look forward to their next project.

This performance by Shri Kalaa Mandir, Anga Kala Kathak Academy, Monali Nandy Mazumdar, and La Romera took place at Breen Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, 8/10/2019,

Victor Lucas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.