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Steps to Enlightenment

by: DIANE WINDELER – June 8, 2015
Originally Published in Incident Light

From the Mahabharata: The Great Dance-Off!, which premiered June 4 at the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater at the Tobin Center, is a provocative multidisciplinary piece that reflects the essence of the epic Sanskrit poem through the universal languages of dance, theatre and music.

Conceived and directed by AtticRep producing director Roberto Prestigiacomo, it is the company’s season finale, mounted in collaboration with choreographers Kausi Subramaniam and Seme Jatib. The setting is a dance studio – padded mats defined by thin vertical ropes – where a company is planning to stage portions of the Mahabharata for an upcoming performance. Based on the opening warm-up exercise scenes, we see that the dancers are comfortable with both contemporary and Bharatanatyam styles. But which is the more appropriate for interpreting stories from the Mahabharata? A friendly rivalry ensues, concluding with a dance-off between sides to determine the winning approach.

Thus, through a series of brief readings or monologues, there are references to a handful of tales about the struggles and conflicts of such heroic figures as Draupadi, the Pandavas, Bhishma and others. The sequences are well done but appropriately unpolished, as they would be during what amounts to a behind-the-scenes view of a work in progress. The open gestures and graceful athleticism of the contemporary faction provide an intriguing contrast to the staccato footwork and tighter, more elegant movements of the Indian one.

Local music and yoga teacher Ananda Nadayogi improvises atmospheric Indian-style violin accompaniment to several of the Bharatanatyam dances. Contemporary versions are danced to piquant, sensual original music by California-based composer Reena Esmail and recorded by the SOLI Chamber Ensemble. Kudos to lighting designer Gaila Raymer and to scenic designer Jeremiah Teutsch, whose work included two beautiful puppets.

The invigorating dance-off segment embodies the overall theme of battle, as the dancers emulate archery moves and physical confrontation separately and together.

At 13,000 pages, the massive Mahabharata dates to circa 400 BCE (with even earlier origins) and is rightly called the longest poem ever written. It is set in 18 parvas or books, each containing dozens of stories, not unlike the Christian Bible. Its essence is finding ways to navigate the path to enlightenment and happiness through a complex code of conduct.

Selecting which tales to include must have been a huge challenge for Mr. Prestigiacomo and his team, but the chosen ones accomplish the goal of examining the interrelationships of world cultures. To that end, this is part of the proposed International Festival of Performance.

Unfortunately, there are no program notes nor a synopsis, which means that while the ensemble is generally well-trained and agile, the specific dancers and actors in each scene are not identified. Worse, those of us with little knowledge of the poem found some of the rapid-delivery commentary confusing.

That said, it is an inspired idea and a compelling means of successfully fusing various media to enhance and experience world culture.

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