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Fight From the Inside

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Kalapriya Dance

at the Harold Washington Library Center, September 22

Luna Negra Dance Theater

at the Duncan YMCA Chernin Center for the Arts, September 20-23

Tradition has an internal logic that resists disruption, and transcending it requires more than mere rebellion, as recent concerts by Kalapriya Dance and Luna Negra Dance Theater demonstrated. The Kalapriya program suggested that anyone wishing to overthrow tradition must, like a martial artist, exploit her opponent's strength. It also suggested, tantalizingly, that those most devoted to showing the way into an art form are best equipped to identify pathways out of it.

"Kathak-Natyam" featured Kalapriya artistic director Pranita Jain and Indian guest artist Pallavi Raisurana. Each dance on the program began with a voice-over explanation, underscoring Jain's interest in spreading understanding of the traditions while expanding them. The south Indian form bharatanatyam, which she performs, was devised to tell stories and often comes close to mime, while kathak--the north Indian dance in which Raisurana is trained--is more allusive and fluid. But the differences go beyond this: as the narrator explained, kathak grew up in the royal courts while bharatanatyam emerged from the temples.

Kathak does indeed seem earthier, largely because the torso is more mobile than in bharatanatyam, which emphasizes the limbs and head, including the face. As embodied by the extraordinary Raisurana, kathak merges flesh and spirit in a series of twirls and sways and graceful arm motions, bearing some resemblance to forms as diverse as hula and belly dancing. Kathak was clearly designed to please people while bharatanatyam seems more concerned with pleasing the gods.

But putting them onstage together made something new: a less deferential kathak, a more athletic bharatanatyam. This was particularly true of the finale, which freed both performers from literal storytelling and was enlivened by the counterpoint of Raisurana's tarantella spins and Jain's crouches and kicks. Their hands moving in parallel--Raisurana's floating, Jain's grasping the air--were lovely, as were their belled feet: Raisurana's alluring, Jain's commanding attention. Jain was daring and buoyant, but it was Raisurana who held the eye. Her virtuosity made the case for building on tradition rather than simply trying to supplant it.

By contrast the Luna Negra concert suffered from a concentration on the company's stated goal: "to break the stereotypical image of Latin dance." This aim almost requires artistic director Eduardo Vilaro to discard the tradition's strengths as well as its weaknesses. What's left is choreography free of Latin gender stereotypes but also of the electricity that traditional partnering can provide. Liberated from the lockstep of unison dancing, it ends up exalting fragmentation over connectedness.

Without partnering or unison movement, all that remains is the solo, though perhaps in clusters of two or three. And since it's hard to make a single body and a single skein of movement interesting over time, solos nearly always suffer by comparison with works featuring multiple dancers. (There's a reason traditional dances tend to be group endeavors--they're more fun to see as well as do.) Vilaro is not quite up to the challenge: in Late...After Siesta he deconstructs the romantic pas de deux by having Kristin Mitchell dance around him while he ignores her, then switching roles, but the piece is less than the sum of its parts. It also looks too much like River North's witty The Man That Got Away, without being as funny or as affecting.

Tag begins similarly, with serial performances by the exceptional Juan Estrada, Jorge Morales, and Peter Gaona, but it's most interesting once it evolves into a trio. The men seem to be dancing against each other rather than with each other--but that's part of Vilaro's point. He also has each of them in turn, and all of them at once, make traditionally feminine gestures, cocking a hip or tossing the head. This gender bending is no doubt a revolt against the rigid sex roles of traditional Latin dance, just as the dancers' disconnected coexistence onstage is a reaction to the constraints of traditional Latin society. But these protests have their risks: even if the meaning is not "every man for himself" but "to each his own," the search for individuality can degenerate into narcissism. When Vilaro has his dancers grab their crotches repeatedly and when he concludes the dance with the silhouette of one dancer embracing himself tenderly, he's reduced Tag from a shout of freedom to a bray of self-love.

Actually, the dance doesn't conclude there: the lights come up again to reveal the choreographer pulling up a chair as if for a cozy conference with the audience. He says "good morning" several times using various inflections, then the lights come down for good. He similarly sabotages the end of Guaci Guari ("Soul Sauce") with spoken words, but at least in this case they've been a component from the beginning. This ensemble piece features voice-over accounts of our society's narrow view of Latin dance, coupled with an explicit statement of intention to disrupt that view. Unfortunately, the work's most satisfying section is the one featuring traditional Latin dance, in which couples interact emotionally through rhythm. Though doubtless the complaints about racism are valid, they're not a substitute for exciting choreography.

Nancy Turano also choreographs a trio of solos in Carmen Act I (set to Bizet). Her choreographic invention is even more limited than Vilaro's, though. And the work's most exciting move--dancers running, crouched, from a line perpendicular to the audience to one parallel as they bear down on us--also appears in Tag. Again the performers are strong: Vanessa Valecillos Bembridge, Maya Pingle, and Mitchell move with a commitment, fire, and anguish worthy of the music.

Such exciting dancers deserve better choreography. When Vilaro finds a middle ground between the tradition he comes from and the place he is now, perhaps they'll get it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/William Frederking.

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