The Flea Theater
New York, New York
November 20, 2022
“Rhythm and Gesture” Program:
Speaking in Pointe (world premiere), Conversations with Cunningham & Cage (world premiere), Tides of the Moon, Joe Who??? (world premiere)
In 2017, Indian-born dancer and choreographer Preeti Vasudevan presented a one-woman program at New York Live Arts titled Stories by Hand, a masterpiece and a highlight of that performance year. But prior to and since that program, Vasudevan’s primary focus was and continues to be on a group called Thresh that she founded in 2005 and is its Artistic Director, and for which she choreographs and performs. A collaborative project-based organization that brings together artists of various disciplines and backgrounds, Thresh (presumably short for “threshold”) intends to create cross-cultural productions that, according to its online mission statement, deal with issues of identity, race, gender and inclusion, often in the form of children’s stories and folk tales intended to foster a sense of valued identity, and which includes outreach programs for marginalized and underserved communities in the US and abroad.
Although that’s doubtlessly accurate on a nuts and bolts level, Thresh’s dances aren’t always so orthodoxly presented. Based on what I’ve previously seen, through Vasudevan’s choreography Thresh melds cultural forms into statements of universality with an Indian accent. That is, it presents classical Indian Dance (and, to an extent, Indian culture in general) within a world-view perspective and designed to create a world-view impact. Further, through her choreography and performances, Vasudevan merges (and in the process inevitably contrasts) classical Indian dance forms with more contemporary movement qualities, effectively liberating the piece from the formalism that may be required by either genre. Adding to the mix is that Vasudevan is not only an accomplished dancer and choreographer, but a sublime storyteller and first-rate dance/theater comedian with a highly expressive delivery (facially and by gesture) that raises the entertainment factor of her performances exponentially.
Essentially, the four pieces comprising the hour-long “Rhythm and Gesture” program that Thresh presented at Tribeca’s Flea Theater (one of many New York mini-theaters that have sprouted like benevolent weeds around Manhattan and beyond, and that provide quality performance space for small companies and emerging artists) illustrate the cross-cultural dialectic and dialogue that is Thresh’s focus.
Speaking in Pointe is a simple but serious amalgam of ballet and Indian classical dance (Bharatanatyam, the style in which Vasudevan is trained). Choreographed in collaboration with the three dancers (Ramona Kelley, Audrey Borst, and Kara Walsh) to a score by Kamala Sankaram that includes Indian dance vocal music, the women execute Indian classical dance technique while wearing pointe shoes. In the process they punctuate their movement with characteristic Indian percussive sounds that they produce when their pointe shoes hit the stage floor (in contrast to ballet, in which the shoes are expected to make no – or minimal – sound when they contact the floor). The contrast between the pointe shoes and Indian classical choreographic movement, accompanied by the percussive emphasis of the pointe shoes, can be visually (as well as aurally) jarring, which I think is intentional. In a strange way, it can also look like a satisfactory outgrowth of cross-cultural pollination, since, after awhile, one focuses on the dance’s overall unity rather than on its seemingly incompatible components.
Although at times the piece looks like a class exercise or isolated cross-cultural experiment, the piece isn’t just an academic display of Indian dance in pointe shoes. The dance includes a great deal of movement activity (including stereotypical ballet patterning even within such a small group), and there were moments where individual dancers separate out from the threesome, with one in particular (Kelley) injecting an emotional component to her solo delivery that added a welcome sense of quiet intimacy to the relatively (and appropriately) unemotional execution.
It bears emphasis that according to the program note Speaking in Pointe is part of a larger production that Vasudevan and her collaborators have been working on – a dance-opera based on the 19th century French opera Lakme. My understanding is that this piece, titled L’Orient, is still a work in progress. I suspect that within a greater context the dance will acquire more character and greater significance.
The second piece is far meatier. Conversations with Cunningham & Cage (“Conversations”), choreographed and performed by Vasudevan, appears as something of a duet between her and an empty chair. But it’s far more than that.
Merce Cunningham and his company and John Cage traveled to India in 1964, and twice more thereafter. It’s a matter of relatively common knowledge, albeit common mainly among dance cognoscenti, that Cunningham was inspired by and found common connection with Indian dance (apparently the Bharatanatyam form of classical Indian dance in particular), and that the lessons he learned and the sensitivities he acquired were, to one extent or another, incorporated into his subsequent oeuvre.
What I know of Cunningham’s work doesn’t reflect this, and I confess that I’m not particularly enamored of most of the Cunningham pieces I’ve seen. However, the Cunningham I’ve seen constitute only a minute part of his output; he created many more dances that I haven’t seen. On the other hand, Vasudevan has had an intimate, ongoing relationship with Cunningham dance and the connection between Cunningham technique and Indian classical dance.
In doing a little bit of research so that I could sound at least minimally knowledgeable, I came across a blog post that Vasudevan wrote in 2019 while she was a Jerome Robbins Dance Division Research Fellow (of the New York Public Library) researching the Cunningham-Indian classical dance connection. In the course of her 2019 essay (in addition to everything else, she’s a top-flight writer) she discusses the nature of her research, but also the inspiration that led to her passionate interest in Cunningham and her efforts to further familiarize herself with the subject while she was pursuing her Masters in Dance Studies at the Laban Centre in London eighteen years earlier. Her description of Cunningham’s impact on her, and of Indian dance’s influence on him – not just in terms of choreography alone but with respect to the physical consequences of movement that his technique awakened within her – has led to her continuing interest in Cunningham and his evolution based on his Indian contacts. The essay (titled “Taking Chance Further” and available via the NYPL web site) is a must read. Perhaps I’ll see Cunningham’s work through different eyes the next time I see one of his dances.
All this is a roundabout way of leading into Conversations, which, although always visually interesting, is highly cerebral – one must work to figure out what’s going on.
Vasudevan enters the stage space from downstage right (audience left), seemingly emerging from the steps on which the Flea Theater audience sat. After a slow, purposeful, and silent walk, she positions herself mid-stage left, and the score, composed by Sankaram, at first sounding almost worshipful, begins. Vasudevan slowly reaches out into space with unfolding outstretched arms, looking for … something. She then – again, slowly and purposefully – retrieves a folding chair from the stage left wings, opens it, and plops it down next to where she’d initially positioned herself.
What happens then as she interacts with the chair is fascinating. She first sits on it – looking somewhat sheepish as if she knows what’s about to happen isn’t supposed to be happening, then again reaches out, but, as I recall, this time toward the space from which she retrieved the chair. Something clicks, she mimes being thrilled at a discovery she’s made or some fact that was a revelation to her, and then throughout the course of the remainder of the dance has a silent and invisible but dramatic and multi-faceted conversation with someone who is invisibly occupying the chair; a back-and-forth dynamic dialogue (she moves – paces might be a better word – backward and forward to and from the chair as if in highly animated conversation), creating a “story” of sorts about what her mind sees and hears. Sometimes the unexpressed dialogue evokes an approving response, sometimes not (e.g., she scolds the occupant of the chair for some uncertain infraction or falsification, wagging her finger at the chair’s invisible occupant in the process); sometimes adoringly (at times I thought she resembled Aya, Gamzatti’s servant in La Bayadere – which I doubt was Vasudevan’s intent), sometimes angrily. It’s a tour de force performance, but as I watched it I didn’t understand the conversation; I just saw the visualization of it in progress.
Afterward, it became clear to me (I’m a little slow) that Vasudevan here is visualizing her personal search for the Cunningham / Indian dance connection; for an understanding of whether, and how, Cunningham incorporated what he learned into his work, and imagines herself conversing with Cunningham himself, or maybe Cage, or maybe herself – or all of the above – about what she’s observed. Even without knowing details of the dialogue – in fact, to a large extent because those details aren’t specified – it’s a captivating theatrical presentation. More stories by hand, and heart and mind.
As the dialogue unwinds, the score incorporates vocalization, some of which is strange-sounding and not completely comprehensible, and some of which clearly references the time period of British colonialization and the (unstated) negative impact this had on the Indian classical dance heritage that Cunningham and Cage observed during their visits.
The piece ends with Vasudevan picking up the chair and exiting the stage from the point at which she first entered it, looking a bit bewildered and not completely intellectually satisfied, and with the audience not quite knowing whether the piece ended, perhaps because it never really ends – the search and the dialogue are a continuing process.
Based on the program note, I suspect there’s more to Conversations with Cunningham & Cage that I missed. The note speaks of a challenge to the audience to rethink cultural impact in creativity, and to examine the randomness evident in Cunningham/Cage’s work based on the nine emotional states in Indian theater. I didn’t catch any of that, but maybe in the future I will – Conversations with Cunningham & Cage is the first part of what is intended eventually to be a full-evening work. Perhaps after I see that I’ll be empowered to understand more clearly what Vasudevan sees in Cunningham’s work.
Tides of the Moon was the only non-premiere on the program. Created in 2005, it’s one of Thresh’s earlier pieces, choreographed in reaction to a 2004 tsunami that impacted Sri Lanka and the Southwestern coast of India. To a composition by Ben Foskett, the dance’s five performers (four dancers – the three in Speaking in Pointe plus Laura Mead – and clarinetist Katia Waxman) visually explore the waxing and waning rhythms of the moon as alternative forms of female expression: essentially, another dialogue – this time between lyrical and languid Indian dance and more aggressive and sharp-edged western contemporary dance.
The piece commences with the four dancers with their backs to the audience. As the clarinet-playing begins, they slowly form a circle, and move around and across the stage lyrically. The pace of the score gradually increases, and although the fluidity remains, the dancers’ movement accelerates as well, with some of the dancers’ heads turning backward as the group transverses the stage. Foskett’s music is at first haunting, then gradually becomes increasingly percussive. Drumbeats are heard, and the choreographed lyricism begins to incorporate aggressive and more angular (e.g., flexed feet) overtones.
All this is superficial, and a gross oversimplification. There’s a great deal of movement variety here – body swaying and floor work with the dancers rising and falling as if emulating the tides as well as being charmed (dance-charmed as opposed to snake-charmed) by the clarinet’s languid, almost mesmerizing sounds that to some extent act as a counterpoint to the score. To my recollection there was little clear reference here to the tsunami, but my impression is that Vasudevan and Foskett weren’t trying to visualize that as much as the rise and fall of the tides and the pre- and post-tsunami impact of it. It was very nicely performed by the four dancers, and Waxman’s clarinet-playing (as well as the uncredited costumes) added a degree of cultural sensitivity as well as a touch of class beyond that evident in the dancers’ execution.
The final piece on the program, Joe Who???, is a hoot. According to the program note, the dance is a rhythmic exchange between the songs and sounds of one culture and another. While that’s accurate, it’s inadequate. It’s certainly an exchange, but it’s also a clever visualization of the process of mutual adaptation where the resulting cultural agglomeration is a jumbled but mutually acceptable compromise.
Max Pollak, the first performer to enter the stage area, is described as a “percussive dance/music creator.” In other words, he creates sound and movement (minimal though that movement may be) that to a large extent is based on the percussive sounds he generates by finger-plucking his mouth while concurrently exhaling air resulting in an overemphasized whisper that sounds like “yes yes” and by slapping his thighs and/or clapping his hands together. To these sounds he jauntily moves – little steps forward and back and side to side and with his body seemingly always stuck in mid-laugh. The decibel level of the created sound increases as Pollak moves, and it soon becomes clear that the sound and movement is, or becomes, his method of communication.
Enter Vasudevan, making first contact with this strange alien and being thoroughly confused, not understanding anything that Pollak is saying. As a retort to his “language” she speaks words that only she understands (presumably Hindi), together with an assortment of varyingly inflected grunts that communicate that what Pollak is saying is ridiculous, and that he’s crazy. [If you’re a trekkie, think the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode “Darmak,” but presented comically.]
While Pollak maintains a relatively unchanging facial posture, Vasudevan’s expressive face that she melds like putty signals her disdain for Pollak’s chosen method of communication. After unsuccessfully attempting to mimic his language, she tries to teach him to adapt to hers.
Eventually they communicate, with each making senseless sounds that only the other understands, and which I’m unable to replicate. Eventually, satisfied that they finally understand each other, they stroll happily and somewhat triumphantly offstage repeatedly proclaiming the final agreed-upon phrase as if it were a newly-discovered mantra – which, effectively, it was: “feed my cow.”
Underlying this nonsense compromise is the unstated understanding that the modified communication bears no resemblance whatsoever to what the other was initially saying: essentially that cross-cultural communication is a trip down a metaphoric rabbit hole that can ultimately result in a completely different, and maybe nonsensical to original purists, verbal and behavioral animal.
When they reenter the stage for a curtain call (to my recollection first by themselves, and then together with the rest of the cast), “feed my cow” evolves into “take a bow.” Indeed.
Witnessing a Thresh / Vasudevan program is a little like travelling down that rabbit hole, or flying to Neverland (or at least a passage to India), or opening a box of chocolates a la Forrest Gump. You never know what you’re going to get, but you know it’ll be interesting, exciting, and visually yummy.