Cultural Grafting


How do dancers and choreographers raised or schooled in a particular native tradition expand on that without losing its essence, hybridize it without betraying it? With care, taste, and imagination.

Tamango, born in French Guiana, began studying tap as a boy in Paris. Grown up and the director of Urban Tap, he has tried to bring his Creole heritage and its African roots into tapping. Mostly, as in his most recent show, Bay Mo Dilo (Give Me Water), that means incorporating musicians not usually associated with tap, like Eric Danquin and Daniel Doulos from Guadaloupe and “Bonga” Gaston Jean-Baptiste from Haiti. The remarkable Vado Diomande offers the acrobatic stilt dancing associated with West African ritual (have you ever imagined you’d see a masked figure nine feet high do a somersault as a preparation for standing erect?). When Diomande comes up behind Tamango and pours sand over him and onto the small platform on which the latter stands barefoot, we see a priestly intermediary from an ancient culture generating something like the old sand dances of urban tappers. That’s some cultural handshake!

The Caribbean atmosphere is powerfully assisted by “Naj” Jean de Boysson’s huge projected videos of a moon seen through dark foliage, raindrops falling on a banana leaf, and similarly luscious tropical visions, along with street scenes. Tamango appears, wearing a jingling belt over a pair of black pants so thickly fringed with shreds of fabric that they suggest the feathered costumes of dancers in certain African rituals. What a splendid tapper he is! He keeps his feet underneath him and his body loose but erect, His strong, resonant beats (mic’d shoes!) can hush to a murmur and his steps become mere rapid vibrations like those of an Indian kathak dancer. He flaps his knees in and out Samoan-style. He dialogues with the musicians. He tries to charm us into chanting with him.

Two other dancers spell him. Skinny and limber in white pants and a straw hat, Jean-Claude Bardu plays the amiable fellow-about-town, maybe a little drunk, limbs akimbo, as he follows Belinda Becker, who circles her hips and swishes her long skirts lazily at him.

The show, for all its pleasures, seems skimpy. Not enough of Tamango. Not enough clueing us in to cultural subtleties or connecting with the words projected on the central screen poet Léon Gontrand Damas, who’s credited as an inspiration for Bay Mo Dilo.

Rajika Puri calls her gently provocative performance Conversations with Shiva: Bharata Natyam Unwrapped. With the help of director Yuval Sharon, she has deconstructed and overlapped the numbers of a typical Bharata Natyam solo program to create the image of a village of women, where movement
patterns become conversations. Shobana Ram, beautifully clear in the style’s flashing sculptural designs and piercing rhythms, opens with an invocation to Shiva, but sometimes reappears to lead the group. Kneeling with her back to the audience, she demonstrates the alphabet of single and double hand gestures, while the other women move from docile classroom rows to cluster at the back—their hastas gradually expanding and differing until they resemble a bouquet of varied flowers.

When Puri and Nirali Shastri chant the rhythmic syllables that accompany the basic steps (adavus) of a Bharata Natyam class, they vary their facings and timings to create a sisterly dialogue. In Svara, a dance celebrating the proud, swinging gait of Indian dance, the six women who walk backward in curving paths acknowledge one another as they pass. Forming a circle to execute the rhythmic footwork extrapolated from a varnam, Nirali Shastri, Malini Srinivasan, Pavithra Vasudevan, and Puri look as if they’re exchanging girlish confidences.

In addition to transforming traditional, frontally-oriented solos into group dances, Puri has further expanded them by breaking single phrases into two or more contrapuntal ones. When each of three soloists—Sonali Skandan, Vasudevan, and Malini Srinivasam— performs a padam, and Shobana Raghavan sings the poetic words, she is not alone. When Srinivasan—face alight, hands intricately caressing the air—“tells” a friend how Krishna’s lovemaking transformed her, others seated near her cast sympathetic glances. While Vasudevan speaks, perhaps as Radha, rebuking Krishna for his amorous exploit with another woman “right there, next to your peacock chariot!;” Puri shadows her in the background, as if she were that rival (or perhaps a thought of her), and at the end of the poem, she takes Vasudevan’s place in the spotlight.

One of the concert’s most magical effects is achieved during the pallavi section of Varna; while Ram, as temple dancer, addresses Shiva with her mobile hands and body, another of the women holds up a shiny metal plate to reflect soft light onto her. The concert as a whole, however, makes tasteful use of more contemporary technology. The traditional music provided by vocalist Raghavan and A.R. Balaskandan, playing drums and violin, is augmented by electronic drone and a vocal echo, and sometimes supplanted by less effective sugary-sweet piano music. Julie Ana Dobo’s attractive lighting effects are augmented by occasional videos—such as repeated closeup shots of Ram’s pleated red “apron” fanning out as she sinks into a plié or of her eloquent feet stamping.

Although the dancers Puri has assembled—all currently living in the States—have been finely trained, her “unwrapped” Bharata Natyam doesn’t offer long, rigorous works. In this charming and intelligent program, however, the visual and rhythmic variety and communal exchanges more than make up for not seeing complex patterns develop on a single body over time.

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