Summer Scrapbook

In a Season of Festivals, All the World's Onstage

There's a world in New York, and in summer it dances, telling a multitude of stories. Festivals—many of them free and outdoors—sprout from every conceivable nook and cranny, offering up local and visiting dance troupes and samples of cultures from around the globe. Here are some snapshots from my Summer 2000:

A five-member performing ensemble from Bangalore's Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography presented Kathak Through the Ages at La MaMa, several elegant story-dances choreographed by Guru Smt Maya Rao and, as in the kathak tradition, truly fit for royalty. In Chaturanga, smiling Hindu deities Shiva (Prakash Keshava Naidu) and Parvathi (Sankhya Sitaram Puranik) danced with sunlike exuberance, beating their bare feet against the floor, projecting snaky arms and flying-fish hands. "Yes, we are all that!" they seemed to say, and we felt their joy spinning inside us, awakening the aspects of Shiva and Parvathi that we carry within. Naidu and Mysore Basavarajiah Nagaraj made a keen male pair in the abstract Prabandha, with its slicing turns and galloping hands—a percussive, even propulsive piece served up with delicate control.

Montreal's Roger Sinha of Sinha Danse, born in London to an Indian father and an Armenian mother, showed what it means to live creatively amid the chaos of the West. In his comic Chai, performed at Central Park SummerStage, waltzes and tangos, along with Riverdance's fiddling and Dean Martin's crooning, vied for his attention. If dance is a means of speech, Sinha is truly multilingual, as well versed in voguing (morphed from hand gestures the Bangalore troupe would recognize) as in Graham and ballet. Even dressed improbably in kilt or tutu, his body always found a way to weave its beloved Bharata Natyam rhythms into each Western melody. Sinha's playfulness in Chai is a good antidote to the internalized racism alluded to in his Burning Skin. Embrace something new, Sinha asserts in Chai, then let it reveal your strong, irrepressible self.

Om Yoga Center hosted Prajwal Ratna Vajracharya, foremost practitioner of Nepal's Tantric Buddhist dance, for a rare U.S. appearance. Nepal's sacred dances, perhaps 1000 passed down through numerous generations, are traditionally secret religious practices that have been shown to audiences only since 1957. The elaborately costumed dancers go into trance, channeling the energy of a god, goddess, expanded consciousness, or nature. Vajracharya—the name reflects his priestly caste—calls this practice "the inner heart dancing."

Although movements—particularly symbolic hand gestures—recall kathak's theatrical storytelling, the intent here is the healing and enlightenment of all beings. Accompanied by a tape of trance singers, Vajracharya took on the nature and gender of several divinities. Serene, pearl-draped Avalokiteshvara rocked softly on the balls of his feet; wrathful Vajrapani, garishly painted and wrapped in a snake, splayed his limbs, hopped, and slapped the floor flat and hard like a child in a tantrum. He grimaced and waggled his tongue, threatening to devour anything in his path. His mission? To dispel negativity or, perhaps, redeem it. When Vajracharya resumed his own identity at concert's end, I was astonished to discover a sweet-faced, rather feminine young man. But I recognized him, too: Like the griots of my African culture, he carries his people's ancient ways into the future.

The guys in Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo are cultural storytellers too, though their silent gestures run more to the order of: "Don't run me ov-ah! Go around, you twit!" I hadn't seen this American all-male ballet-parody company in quite a few years; I recalled broad slapstick, tacky acting, pokey dancing—all a hoot, but limited. I didn't expect the boost in technique—a cadre of men doing everything ballerinas can do but backward and in high heels . . . well, pointe shoes . . . and truly exquisite finery!

Raymonda's Wedding, a spicy confection given its New York premiere at the Joyce Theater, skips Raymonda's tangled tale and cuts to the chase—a sparkling cake ported by a ghostly crone draped in white; courtiers blending ballet and czardas steps in true Petipa spectacle; our Raymonda (Olga Supphozova/Robert Carter, who also rules Grand Pas Classique), flashing her diamond or shaking her impressive shoulders like Carmen Miranda. Most of the dancing is quite straightforward; the Trocks present ballet with just enough technical and stylistic precision that their comic riffs, their off-kilter timing, their occasional pratfalls, and other acts of temporary delirium have a secure container. Everything—the overeager smiles, the death-defying partnering, the gum-chewing in the corps de ballet—is funnier for this fundamental love and respect.

New York-based Mexico: Estampas y Tradiciones charmed a large audience at "Lincoln Center Out of Doors" with a program of regional folk dances arranged by director Francisco Nevarez Burgueno. Colorful guerrero dances featured fleet footwork, twirling hankies, and swirling, sherbet-colored gowns. I liked Toro Rabon for its airy nature, the ensemble ranging and weaving about the stage. In Iguana, while a succession of women danced atop a small platform, men scrambled around on their bellies sneaking peeks under skirts.

From Michoacan's religious processions, Nevarez Burgueno drew a clownish dance of the elders—performers in masks and straggly gray hair under beribboned hats who, despite walking with canes, had lots of pep to their step. They clacked like flamenco dancers, and a jaunty chorus number broke out, closely followed by collapse and hobbling. For their finale, the frisky granddads chugged in a serpentine line, canes linking them like railway cars. The show concluded with the dances and opulent costumes of Jalisco, including Jarabe Tapatio (called "the Mexican Hat Dance"), with its courtly square formations. This dance exists at the bitter nexus of indigenous and European history, where a dignified, improbably buoyant culture was forged.

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