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Dance, interpretation, mysticism and the Mahabharata

by: JENNI MORIN – June 8, 2015
Originally Published in Theatre for Change

  • mahabharata

Billed as part of the San Antonio International Festival of Performance, the impetus behind From the Mahabharata hails back to last summer’s Forum Theatre Project, a collaboration of experimental theatre tackling the subject of skin tone between AtticRep and Chennai, India-based Crea-Shakthi Theatre. In an effort to continue infusing international views and aesthetics into the AtticRep season and bring cultural appreciation to local audiences, Producing Artistic Director Roberto Prestigiacomo created and directed From the Mahabharata with the help of choreographers Kausi Subramaniam and Seme Jatib, local dancers, and composer Reena Esmail who devised the original score recorded by San Antonio’s SOLI Chamber Ensemble. Carrying on the theme of Indian culture, the dance-theatre production is inspired by and mimics the story of the ancient epic poem, the Mahabharata. Presented as a dance company debating whether contemporary or traditional style of dance is the appropriate means for illustrating the great Indian saga, From the Mahabharata employs the theme of war, which predominates the Sanskrit text, to bring the action to the climax of the dance-off between the rivaling dance styles.

Since the premise of the production is that the dance company is in rehearsal, the dancers are not quite synchronized or as crisp as a polished recital. This rawness reiterates the experience of attending a premiere, especially as the audience is invited to feel as though they are part of the process in creating this work. While the acting leaves something to be desired, the few scenes of prose readings are both entertaining and insightful. One storyteller chronicles the confusing genealogy of princes as another exchanges offers insight into Dharma, karma, serenity and the path to enlightenment. These scenes speak to the complexity, tradition and constant need for self-evolution in not only Indian culture, but all of humanity.

A string box contains the dance floor as a balanced display of both Indian and contemporary styles set the scene and crescendo into the dance-off in perfect rhythm with Reena Esmail’s original score. Seme Jatib’s modern choreography seems ethereal as the long lines of the dancer’s bodies play against a somewhat smokey bare stage. Just as the staccato movements of Kausi Subramaniam’s traditional dances begin to feel repetitive, a change in tempo and mood revitalizes the action. Violinist Ananda Nadayogi enhances the experience with live accompaniament while Scenic Designer Jeremiah Teutsch brings puppets to life. Along with an evocative lighting design by Gaila Raymer, an undulating liquid seemed manipulated by the dancers as they moved in front of the projection, their shadows cast against the colored forms. The production design coupled with the choreography reflects the magic and mystery synonymous with Indian culture.

Not a traditional theatre production in the least, or an expected dance performance, From the Mahabharata is more of an experience, a behind-the-scenes look at the process of creating performance art. It offers an energetic and exciting escape into an unfamiliar culture with a different take on the battle waged between old and new, contemporary and traditional. AtticRep’s From the Mahabharata: The Great Dance-Off is at times exhilarating, inspiring and thought-provoking if approached with an open mind and willingness to embrace a new cultural experience.

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