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The Justice (October 31, 2011)

Vivid “Encounters” with Indian dance

by Haley DeBerry

Last Saturday night, the Navarasa Dance Theater performed "Encounter," its final performance in a series of shows at Brandeis. The dance company, originally from Mysore, India, was hosted by the MusicUnitesUS program. "Encounter" brought exciting interpretations of human experiences with love, the self, Bob Marley and the military to the Slosberg Recital Hall stage.

Co-choreographers Aparna Sindhoor and Anil Natyaveda's Indo-American dance style fuses classical Indian dance with Western styles, such as modern and contemporary, as well as martial arts. But the melding of these styles, Sindhoor says, is more than a creative choice. "When I say Indo-American, I'm talking about life experiences, because I live partly in India, partly [in America], so the style of movement that is influenced by life is both Indian and American."

The performance opened with three short dances. In "Encounter with Love," Sindhoor's choreography delighted her audience with sprightly, lilting movements and intensely expressive eyes. "Encounter with Bob Marley" was performed to his song "No Woman No Cry" and included decidedly Western dress and props. However, the highlight of the show's first segment was "Encounter with Self." Dancers Rajesh Raveendran and Natyaveda captured viewers with a sensual exploration of mental and physical identity, juxtaposing slow, calculated gestures with quick, impulsive movements to create a contemplative dynamic between them. Steeped in red light, they beautifully articulated the elusive nature of meaningful self-reflection. "It has a lot of physicality, with a lot of lifting and jumping and balancing. It's a very challenging piece," said Natyaveda in an interview with justArts.

The second part of the evening was a longer piece titled, "Encounter with the Military," which combined narrative, singing and dance to reinterpret Indian author Mahasweta Devi's well-known story about the military's disturbance of an indigenous group. A military troop occupies a community of native "tribals," subjecting its members to torture, starvation, fear, dehydration and, in the case of Sindhoor's character, rape. "They think they can break her, but they can't," said Sindhoor of her character's vicious refusal to allow the soldiers to clothe her after the heart-wrenching scene.

The dances in this piece ranged in mood and content from festive to somber to sensual to aggressive to disturbing. The soldiers repeated a phrase that epitomized the blind cruelty of a situation such as this one: "All tribals look alike." Interestingly, though, the soldiers are native to the same area as the "tribals." Sindhoor explained, "[It's also about] who gets to wage the war, who gets affected by it. Sometimes it's the state."

An interesting prop used in all parts of the narrative was an enormous wooden pole that stood about 14 feet tall. It acted as a center for celebration as well as terror; dancers even supported themselves on it, undulating at its peak and acrobatically navigating the vertical space around it. "All religious things happen around and emerge from the pole, and suddenly it becomes a symbol of torture," Sindhoor explained of its universal purpose in the story.

Torture, starvation and rape are all emotionally difficult ideas for an audience, but the nature of "Encounter" and the title itself also have differing implications in South Asian and American cultures.

"In most of the world, the word ‘encounter' is so loaded. If you read any newspaper in India, if you just see ‘encounter,' it's almost the military or the police brutality that comes to mind. I just wanted to reinvent that word and kind of reinterpret it. So the first half [of the performance] is all about the positive encounters, … the second one is the military encounter," Sindhoor said.

Brandeis graduate Asa Bhuiyan '11 made an impressive appearance as a soldier in "Encounter with the Military" after only one week of training with the Navarasa Dance Theater. "It was difficult developing the mentality of the character in a condensed amount of time," she explained.

The reception after the performance included Indian food and drink and a discussion between those involved in the production and interested audience members. "I realized that one thing that was missing was the interaction with people," Sindhoor said to explain this additional feature. The dancer meant that asking the audience to watch such emotionally draining scenes called for a discussion afterward so they could get closure instead of just having to leave.

The Navarasa Dance Theater's "Encounter" was an immensely successful event. "We just want to fill [the audience's] hearts ‘til they burst," expressed dancer Raghu Narayanan. They undoubtedly succeeded.

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