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.

"We'll dance even if we have to wear sneakers instead of toe shoes," Daniel Scott of MorganScott Ballet said cheerfully as we talked by phone. True to Scott's word, the company performed its Bryant Park gig under torrential rain, in toe shoes, before a very small, wet, appreciative audience. Since they'd started at least half an hour early, trying to beat the rain, I caught only the end of Edward Morgan's Nocturneand a hastily but bravely offered snippet from his Love, Karen and the 1970's. It would be unfair to review MorganScott under these circumstances, but I can tell you that both pieces were performed with incredible poise and enough splashing for an Esther Williams retrospective.

"Lincoln Center Out of Doors" paired two community-based youth groups—La Santa Luz Dance Company (supported by the South Bronx Police Athletic League) and Gestures Dance Ensemble (students from East Harlem's Boys Harbor Conservatory). The pre-professional Gestures needs a choreographic shake-up. Of the five pieces shown, only Nina Klyvert-Lawson's Rounds (as in boxing rounds) cohered and avoided cliché. But even with the pumping club music, Rounds seemed enervated—all preparation and threat and no follow-through. In Wakina Humphrey's One Against Many, the dancers channeled the lilt and suppleness of Zap Mama's melismatic singing, but this piece too could have used a shot of dynamism. By contrast, La Santa Luz ("holy light") swept across the stage with a sense of freedom and command. I liked Anthony Rodriguez's Hyper Ballet: the futuristic look of its ensemble, the clean, sculpted lines and unusual isolations, and big-hearted Rodriguez, a kind of male Latino Sara Rudner, dancing solos featuring American Sign Language. He was so compelling and clear that it hardly mattered that I couldn't grok the Björk song. The salsa dancing in Rodriguez's Nuestra Cosa is terrific fun. Look for La Santa Luz at Joyce Soho in September.

Appropriately, my summer roundup ended with a lesson in the necessity of preserving and sharing stories. "Lean in and listen," said actress Abena Appiah Kubi Koomson. "A story may save your life." A U.S. native born of Ghanaian immigrants, Koomson offered Cozi Sa Wala: Magic Words at Rod Rodgers Studio as part of "FringeNYC." Cozi Sa Wala blended storytelling with percussion by Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng. Ample-bodied, charming Koomson draped herself in lengths of fabric as she portrayed characters from Fanti tales and her own family's experiences, slipping into various voices, body languages, and attitudes. Although the piece contained a smattering of pure dance, it was infused with physical movement performed with great confidence and inseparable from the intent of her words. Two scenarios—one about a drunk driver and his mourners, the other a fable involving a competition for wealth and a princess's hand in marriage—intersected in a final critique of women's silence, a call for women to step forward, ask questions, take action. A bit short for Koomson's philosophical conclusions to be properly presented and digested, the 45-minute show nevertheless introduced us to a gifted, winning performer and the healing wisdom of her people.

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