1 Oct 2007
Dance Review: Pandit Chitresh Das/Jason Samuels Smith: India Jazz Progressions
Pandit Chitresh Das/Jason Samuels Smith: India Jazz Progressions
Cowell Theater, San Francisco, CA
October 1, 2007
© VoiceofDance.com 2007
Jason Samuels Smith and Pandit Chitresh Das. Photo by Marty Sohl.
There are times in a career of dancegoing when you think multiculturalism is an illusion. At these very special moments, and despite much evidence to the contrary, you can easily believe that there is only a single universal (or, if you wish, global) dance culture. True. Dance arrives in our theaters from different places, derives from sundry societies and rituals, wears different costumes, moves to different musics and sometimes dances barefoot. Yet, it all seems to aspire to similar abstract qualities.
These are rare happenings. This reporter experienced one of them Friday (Sept. 28) at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater, where the Marin County-based kathak master, Pandit Chitresh Das and Los Angeles-based tap dance firebrand Jason Samuels Smith assembled their companies and musicians for the premiere of the stirring India Jazz Progressions. This idea of exploring two particular dance cultures on a stage simultaneously began with a chance meeting of these two artists at the American Dance Festival in 2004, when the seed of India Jazz Suites was born. That project opened in San Francisco in November, 2005 and will start touring nationally this month. This generous newer entertainment is not so much the sequel to as it is the second installment of India Jazz Suites, enlisting the artists’ companies in these flavorful excursions. Two consorts of musicians, a complement of North Indians and a jazz trio, frame the stage.
The secret of the enterprise lies in improvisation. When, finally, at the end of the evening, Das and Smith launch a delectable sequence to Duke Ellington’s "Caravan," and gradually bring on their associates to participate in the revels, their presence hurtles you to a state of pure bliss. Smith, unlike his colleague Savion Glover, courts the audience’s affection in the friendliest way and uses his upper body as one significant element in a total energizing of the body. Das sidles in and yields more insidious pleasure, picking up the rhythm from his North Indian classical instrument band, subdividing it, subtly altering the accents and tossing it back at them, meeting the floor with bare (and amplified) feet, ankles girdled with the traditional bells. The sequence builds to a glorious climax of polyrhythmic intensity.
Yet, as wondrous as the finale may be, much of the remainder of India Jazz Progressions compels the attention, too. Through his Chhandam School Das has built a tradition of kathak in the Bay Area and from that academy has populated a youthful and meticulously trained dance company (but why, I wonder, is it all female?). Das has been inculcating them in kathak yoga technique. In the work-in-progress, Shabd (meaning sound or word), we see, for the first time, how teaching can foster intriguing choreography, how one builds on tradition in a contemporary setting.
Kathak yoga demands integration of body and spirit. The seven women breathe deeply, chant, stamp, flex fingers, recite the rhythmic structure. One of the dancers extracts sharp wheezes from a small harmonium; the others wear finger cymbals. At the end, in a semi-circular unison, the women have generated a rhythmic complexity that suggests both movement and stasis. It’s an intensely focused, yet serene moment and I couldn’t help thinking back to the 1980s when Laura Dean, that charismatic, American postmodernist of 25 years ago, created the closed, fluid, mesmerizing structures that earned her a place in the history books. Now, perhaps I know how she was inspired.
Earlier, in Madan Bhasma, Das, in white skirt fringed with gold, illuminated the kathak dancer’s art in a bewitching solo narrative that traced a traditional fable from Hindu mythology. The symmetries of classicism do not preclude subtle physical acting that is nothing like anything else you will see. The performer’s eyes blaze, his head swivels, his arms implore, his fluttering fingers limn a bird’s flight and he conjures a character with a stare or with a bent knee or flexed foot. That Das recounts the tale while animating it seems to take to the heart of his craft. Ben Kunin was the sarodist.
Samuels’ solo outing, performed to Charlie Parker’s "Donna Lee," found the dancer in an expansive mood, the staccato footwork and outstretched arms seeming a constant invitation to pleasure. As fine as these artists were, the revelation of the evening was the tapper Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards, a veteran artist who, both alone and in tandem with Smith, proved a genuine sensation. Edwards may be the most elegant tap artist of her generation. She attacks the floor with uncommon velocity, laying down a carpet of delicate, focused sounds phrased in unbroken spans. It was easy to think of a piano composition, written entirely in 32nd notes. Edwards doesn’t proclaim her artistry; she seems to lure you into a web and you find yourself trapped, a prisoner of her style.
The evening opened with a solo by one of Das’ outstanding protegées, Charlotte Moraga, whose clarity of execution, eloquence of gesture and speed in turns are much admired throughout the world. Her expressive number was succeeded by an outing with Chloe Arnold, a terrific performer who didn’t seem at her fiery best on this occasion. The pair veered into an improvisation, which, somehow, just did not click. Funny; Moraga has been a professional jazz dancer, yet the absence of spontaneity threatened briefly to derail what ultimately proved a most appealing evening of dance.
Das and Smith will appear in India Jazz Suites at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4, at Cal State University at Monterey Bay World Theater, Seaside, CA. For tickets, call (831) 582-3000. For information on additional tour stops, go to www.kathak.org.