18 Nov 2006
Dance opens hearts, minds
By TRESCA WEINSTEIN, Special to the Times Union
First published: Saturday, November 18, 2006
ALBANY -- You know you're living on a steadily shrinking planet when you can sit in a theater in upstate New York and watch a tap dancer rapping freestyle while an Indian Kathak dancer plays the tabla.
And that's a very good thing.
What the world needs now is more of what "India Jazz Suites" brought to The Egg on Friday night -- more of the kind of cross-cultural, boundary-bashing experiments that open hearts and minds, and bring audiences to their feet into the bargain.
Tap maestro Jason Samuels Smith, an Emmy Award winner (for his choreography for the 2003 Jerry Lewis/MDA Telethon) and former cast member of "Bring in Da' Noise, Bring in Da' Funk," met Pandit Chitresh Das, master of the Indian classical dance form Kathak, at the 2004 American Dance Festival in North Carolina.
They came from completely different worlds, but their feet had clearly known each other in another life.
"India Jazz Suites" is the dynamic, charming and incredibly poignant result of their collaboration.
In the first half of the production -- which fit perfectly, both atmospherically and size-wise, in The Egg's intimate Swyer Theatre -- we get to know each dancer separately. Smith is a warm, charismatic performer who falls somewhere along the spectrum between Savion Glover and Jimmy Slyde. Tall and rangy, wearing cornrows and a goatee, he's loose yet suave, more playful and less intense than Savion, but just as quick and not above a showy slide or two.
Then the fabulous jazz trio (Channing Cook-Holmes on drums, Theo Hill on piano and Nick Szatmari on bass) turned over the stage to tabla player Salar Nader, Swapnamoy Banerjee on sarod and Ramesh Mishra on sarangi, and Smith introduced "my better half." Petite and fine-boned, with four pounds of bells tied to each ankle, Das is the Baryshnikov of Kathak, perfectly executing the precise, angular compositions of the form, yet never distancing the audience. Most fetching of his dances was a story from the Mahabharata, in which Das played the roles of king, deer, bow and arrow, horse's hooves, and beautiful lady; his pitch-perfect portrayal of the courtship is hilarious.
The payoff comes in the second half, when both dancers and all six musicians take the stage together to riff on each other's rhythms. Bare feet side-by-side with shiny tap shoes, tabla conversing with steel drums, centuries-old Indian dance meeting original American art form -- these are beautiful things to behold, and they go surprisingly and satisfyingly well together. If life could imitate art with this kind of harmony, we'd live in a very different world. Tresca Weinstein, a local freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to the Times Union. Dance review"India Jazz Suites" Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany When: 8 p.m. Friday Length: 110 minutes The crowd: A small, diverse group who nevertheless filled the theater with laughter and applause.