michael j. morris


MANCHA PRAVESH: Imani Asha Gaston and Odissi

Image by Clarence Alexander

When I enter the MLK Auditorium in Hale Hall on The Ohio State University campus, several instruments surrounded by microphones are already set out on brightly colored fabric on stage right. Just off the front of the stage, a small pedestal is draped with pink, gold, and orange fabric. On top sits a small statue with fresh flowers at its feet. I look around at the audience gathering for this Mancha Pravesh, the debut solo Odissi dance recital performed by Imani Asha Gaston: it is a much more diverse audience than I usually see at arts events in Columbus, Ohio. There are children and college students, parents and elders; the audience is a mix of African-American, Indian, and white people. This is not merely incidental. It is evidence of some of this event’s importance. As the lights dim, the musicians enter and take their places at their instruments and microphones. The MC introduces the first dance, “Vakratunda,” an invocation that pays homage to the Hindu god Ganesha. The music begins, the droning of the veena—a stringed instrument like a very large guitar that lies across the musician’s lap—punctuated by the rapid percussion of the mardala—a small drum. Imani Asha Gaston comes onto the stage, dressed in folds of red and beige silk, shining silver jewelry, and jangling ankle bells that ring in time with the music.

I have reservations writing about an Odissi performance: Odissi, a form of classical Indian dance that dates back to the second century B.C., is not a style of dance that I have studied or practiced. I already know that anything I write about it will be as an outsider to the form. The same would be just as true for a hip-hop or tap dance performance, or a performance in the style of countless other dance traditions that have not been included in my own dance training, which has focused primarily on ballet, American and European modern and postmodern dance, Japanese Butoh, and an array of improvisational techniques. Very nearly all that I know about Odissi, I learned this afternoon at the Mancha Pravesh, from the detailed program and the introductions given by the MC. Beyond that information, when watching this performance of five dances, I could not tell you which of the gestures or steps are codified within the Odissi tradition and which are inventions or innovations particular to this solo choreography. I could not tell you these ways Odissi differs from the other seven forms of classical Indian dance. I could not identify which movements carry broader cultural significance, in the way that fluttering, undulating arms have become metonymic to Swan Lake and The Dying Swan, perhaps even to ballet and its feminine ideal. I could not tell you how long histories of social structures, gender and racial politics, philosophical and religious perspectives, and globalization have potentially impacted the traditions that shape the performer’s dancing body. In short, to write about this work feels, at least in part, like exposing a particular breadth of what I do not know.

As I consider this, I realize that this situation is probably not so dissimilar from the majority of audience members at any dance performance. While a vast number of people—particularly those socialized as girls when they were children—have grown up taking dance classes, most people in the United States do not have any education or much experience in watching dance and thinking critically about it. Most have not studied the dance forms that they view, let alone the historical, cultural, and political conditions from which those dance forms emerged. In many ways, the extent to which I am not familiar with Odissi resembles the extent to which most American audiences are not familiar with many forms of dance. As a result, for me to write about this performance takes me—an “insider” to much of the concert dance that I encounter, as a dancer, a choreographer, and a scholar—outside of my expertise, pushing me to rely almost entirely on what I perceive about the performance that unfolds in front of me. In this sense, the performance itself will have to be my education in the form. Perhaps this itself can be instructional.
[I do realize that even how I write about what unfolds in front of me with disclose elements of my biases, my dance training, and my education. This will no doubt be simultaneously productive and potentially problematic in ways I do not yet understand.]

As Gaston enters, her hands are pressed together as if in prayer. Her steps are steady then quick, shifting her weight rapidly and often leaving her balanced on one foot. Her feet strike the ground forcefully with her heels or the balls of her feet in the rhythm of the music. Atop these strong, direct steps grounding her movements from their base, her torso is poised vertically—held but not rigid. Although the placement of her body demonstrates constant control, she remains mobile; throughout the dances, her head and shoulders incline and twist, her ribs and her hips circle and roll. Around the careful placement of her torso, Gaston’s arms trace intricate patterns in the air, swinging and gliding and circling gestures that orbit her center like spinning constellations. These gestures fly across a dynamic range of speeds, but even at their fastest, they are not flung out of control. They remain precise, somewhere between shooting stars and needlepoint, always arriving emphatically in clear, distinct postures. There are no details that are not choreographed: Gaston’s eyes cut from side to side, up and down and straight ahead in complex patterns, and even her fingertips dance as her hands shift from mudra to mudra in rapid succession. Intricacy and complexity compound as the dancer’s feet and legs and hips and shoulders and arms and fingers and head and eyes all accentuate the rhythm of the music, sometimes articulating multiple distinct cadences that move across and support each other, and sometimes settling—softly or swiftly—into a single posture, pose, or pulse, bringing disparate parts together into a common unity.

Alongside and yet part of the dancer’s movement, the music crests and falls, accelerating with the beat of the drum, the bright clang of hand cymbals, and text that is spoken in rapid syllables, then dissolving again into ringing drone of the veena and the longer tones of the singing vocalist. None of the text that is spoken or sung is in English, which holds some part of what is happening in mystery, reminding me that my access to what I am experiencing is always partially limited by my own history and situatedness.

There are five dances performed in this program, all choreographed by Guru Ratikant Mohapatra and Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Each one differs in intent, as described by the program: following the invocation to Ganesha, the second piece unfolds through a series of sculptural poses strung together with steps in varying rhythms in honor of Shiva, the cosmic Lord of Dance. The third piece evolves through accelerating tempos of gestures, postures, steps, and movements of the eyes, demonstrating the dancer’s skill. The fourth piece is part of a narrative, in which the dancer embodies multiple characters in the story of Radha and Krishna. The final piece, entitled “Moksha” which means “spiritual liberation,” represents “a spiritual culmination for the dancer who soars into the realm of pure aesthetic delight.”* Each piece shares a different facet of Odissi as well as the dancer, which is appropriate for the event. This Mancha Pravesh is a debut dance recital, a transformative moment in the life of the dancer as she becomes a professional solo Odissi performer. In a sense, this recital is a ritual, not only marking but also enacting the transition of the dancer from one phase as a student to another phase, as a professional performer. Moving from the opening invocation, through various demonstrations of skill, and culminating in a dance of liberation, each piece embodies a step in the dancer’s journey.

While each piece is clearly within the same style of movement—focusing on idiomatic uses of the eyes, the hands, the subtle control in the torso, the forcefulness of the steps, all closely following the music—each also has subtle characteristic elements that make it unique. The first piece feels very much like an address, performed mostly facing the audience, the palms of Gaston’s hands opening and closing in gestures that feel both sacred and welcoming. There is more turning in the second piece, more acceleration in the third, more looking side to side in the fourth, and a spaciousness and stillness in the final piece that is unlike all of the others. I think the final piece is my favorite. While still threading between intense phrases of rapid, driving steps and gestures, the dancer also moves through passages of pause and sustainment. Her body gradually rises and sinks, and the slower transformations between gestures and mudras almost drift around the soft and steady current of her weight. In the final moments of the piece, Gaston balances in what I would call in my yoga classes Virabhadrasana III—Warrior Pose III—balanced on one leg with her other leg and torso parallel to the floor, first facing stage right, then left, then the audience. She lifts up into what I would call Tadasana—Mountain Pose—her feet flat on the floor and her arms lifted above her head. Slowly, her hands drift downward, shifting through different mudras, and carrying her into a low squatting position. This is where the performance ends.

But this is not the end of my thinking. Between the third and fourth pieces, several people spoke, offering a few words about the performance, including Kaustavi Sarkar—Gaston’s Odissi teacher who is a doctoral student in the Department of Dance at OSU and an accomplished Odissi dancer, choreographer, and educator—and Gaston’s mother, Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston, the Vice President for Student Life at OSU. Both speakers were moving, but Dr. J—as Adams-Gaston is affectionately known on campus—spoke to something I was feeling since I first arrived. In addition to honoring her daughter’s accomplishments and Sarkar’s important work with Odissi at OSU, she offered that this performance also told the story of the university, what it allows students to do, and what she described as “what we mean by higher education”: bringing out the best in each student by allowing them to see themselves as bigger than their backgrounds or the perceptions and perspectives with which they arrived. She said that the university can be a place where we become global citizens, citizens of the world, and that the dancing we saw today embodies that potential.

I appreciated Dr. J’s discussion of what the university can provide. As an educator working in one university who is starting a new job at a different university in August, at a time when higher education is becoming increasingly privatized as a business of buying and selling and debt, I feel a lot of gratitude for Dr. J giving voice to what higher education can provide not only to its students but to the world in which they live, the world that they are making. I don’t want to diminish the specificity of what happened today, Imani Gaston and Kaustavi Sarkar’s labor and exceptional work. Rather, beyond my descriptions of the dancing and the music, I want to acknowledge that part of what made this work remarkable was seeing an African-American woman becoming an expert in an Indian dance tradition, working with an Indian woman who herself is studying, practicing, and teaching within an American university. One important aspect of this joint project relates to how we share culture: at a time in which I see the words “cultural appropriation” again and again across Facebook, twitter, and blogs that I read, I would like to point to Gaston’s work with Sarkar as one model for responsibly participating in a different culture. Months and months of hard work, hours and hours of dancing, the careful, strenuous training through which a dance tradition from India comes to live within the flesh and fibers of an African-American woman’s body, all participate in a form of rigorously responsible cultural exchange, becoming so embedded in a practice that the practice then becomes undeniably embedded in you. Our world could benefit from more of this kind of exchange.

Finally and also remarkably, in response to the inter-cultural situation of Sarkar and Gaston dancing, teaching, and learning together, an audience of friends, family, community, and academics, a multi-generational audience who was Indian—and potentially Indian-American—African-American, and white, showed up, shared space, and shared an experience of witnessing something that ranged from a deeply treasured cultural tradition for some to an art event in an unfamiliar medium for others. I can’t help but think that in the specific cultural moment in which we find ourselves, in which race and class continue to stratify our society in ways that continue to result in unacceptable violence, today I saw something—was a small part of something—that performed a different socio-cultural paradigm. Many of us had different reasons for attending Gaston’s Mancha Pravesh today, but perhaps—like the different parts of the dancer’s body moving in different rhythms yet somehow finding harmonic resolution as one—by finding focal points that we can share from different perspectives and organizing ourselves around them, something personal can becomes communal and in turn becomes something global. I would like to think that in as much as this performance enacted a transition in Gaston’s career as a dancer, it also marked a potential for transformation at other, larger scales, not only in concept, but in practice: a way we might move towards a more just world in which we want to live.

*Quoted from the program notes.

Additional Program Information:

Musicians:
Vocal: Niranjani Deshpande
Veena: Sumamala Devalpally
Mardala: Vendata Chawla
Manjira: Sukanya Chand
Ukuta / Bol: Kaustavi Sarkar

Advertisements

Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s



%d bloggers like this: