2 Oct 2007
Review: Bring in 'da noise, bring in 'da Kathak
Rachel Howard, Chronicle Dance Correspondent
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
If you've never heard of the North Indian classical dance form Kathak, San Francisco's Pandit Chitresh Das has one word for you: rhythm. As in, bring-the-house-down, feel-it-in-your-bones rhythm.
Two years ago, on his never-ending quest to take Kathak to the American masses, the 62-year-old Das teamed with tap dance phenom Jason Samuels Smith for a cross-cultural conversation. In "India Jazz Progressions," unveiled Friday at the Cowell Theater before a national tour, he's brought more voices along for the ride. Watch out, Savion Glover; you may have "Da Funk," but you don't have Chitresh Das.
No matter that one form uses five pounds of ankle bells and the other metal taps; no matter that one evolved centuries ago in the Mughal palaces, the other much more recently on the streets of New York. Das brings East and West together and lets them talk straight. At stage left stands the jazz ensemble - drums, bass, piano. At stage right, the Indian musicians - tabla, sitar, sarangi. When their voices first begin to mix, it is strange talk indeed.
But then Das' leading disciple, Charlotte Moraga, comes whirling on, stamping out ear-teasing percussive patterns in that vigorous, upright Kathak way. She calls out the tal - or rhythmic cycle, which in Kathak can be anything from your standard eight-count phrase to more mind-bending variations, like nine and a half beats - and she chants her variations - taka di, taka di, da, da. When tapper Chloe Arnold comes hoofing on, she's doing a very different thing, arms flying, hips swinging, feet sliding and hitting. But they have an instant rapport, and they're trading riffs in no time.
The solos and duets that follow are an embarrassment of riches. In addition to the rangy virtuoso Smith, who reprises his dazzling chemistry with Das in an ovation-rousing finale, Smith has also brought along Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, hands down my favorite of the evening. Ladylike but muscled, the girl has funk - her chicken-clucking duet with Smith will make you laugh out loud. But she can also be delicate and amazingly musically nuanced, as when she filigreed tiny crisp taps around the melody of a piano ballad. No wonder so many of the Bay Area's top tappers were in attendance.
But Kathak is not to be outdone in the friendly duel, and fortunately Das sees no need to water his form down. "Kathak" derives from an Indian word for "storyteller," and in the first half Das treated us to a short tale from the Ramayana, showing his acting chops at full power, raising an eyebrow coyly as a housewife one moment, glaring as an angry God the next.
And lest anyone wonder about the ability of his disciples to keep the true flame with all this fusion going on, he brought out the Chitresh Das Dance Company for a demonstration of his new training technique, Kathak Yoga. It makes even the hairiest Ashtanga class look like child's play.
Picture eight women continually chanting a main melody while their feet slap out ever more mathematically brain-twisting variations below. Now add a leader who must not only chant and stamp, but also at the same time play the harmonium. It may sound like some wacky Vaudeville act, but the results were serious: Das' dancers look stronger than ever.
It's a shame "India Jazz Progressions" played just three days in San Francisco, as I can't imagine who wouldn't enjoy it. Perhaps an enterprising producer will know a hot show when he sees it and book this for a longer Bay Area run. I'd be in line for a ticket.
This article appeared on page E - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle