“Dance theatre” is a term much abused, to label any relatively large-scale dance spectacle. In fact, it is pretty obvious that all dance performances, even short and solo, are by nature theatrical. True dance-theatre, therefore, applies only to composite works where both arts operate in equal measure, where not only do the artists dance but they also act and speak scripted dialogue.
We welcomed the chance to witness this kind of rare interdisciplinary hybrid in Thresh’s Stories by Hand, an American production showcased by Prakriti Foundation in a festival to celebrate the golden jubilee of a hotel chain born in Kolkata. The soloist, Preeti Vasudevan, grew up in Chennai, where she learnt Bharatanatyam, and then settled in the US, where she practises contemporary dance and has won many accolades. In Stories, she relates her own journey but never becomes self-indulgent, for she roots everything in their cultural contexts.
While studying and teaching in the US, I often pondered how our classical mudras could ever get across to Americans – Indian-origin or not. Their language of coded signifiers implied pushing spectators into a tight corner, alienated from the meaning. Vasudevan has evidently thought of this divide too, bridging it effortlessly by explaining some basic mudras at the start, fluidly as part of her performance. Yet she does not make any concessions when incorporating Tamil liberally into her text, rightly flaunting her fluent bilingualism to create a richer experience.
She glides between three designated “clusters”, from family relationships (most memorably, her grandmother chiding her dead grandfather in heaven) to what she calls “dancing body” (contrasting southern Devadasis with tawaifs in Lahore, but too briefly, demanding greater depth) to death, chillingly juxtaposing Shiva’s tandava to Tamil ritualistic funerary drumming on the parai with the narrative of a real-life mass murder in her own Indian-American family, attaining a cathartic close. It is only then that we realize why she dresses in black, albeit casual – Stories by Hand is a requiem mass for her relatives.
Vasudevan stitches the episodes together fascinatingly to weave a tapestry on the ideas of home and belonging, using not just her ease in both cultures but also her versatility in Indian and Western dance, in abhinaya and acting, even in a cappella singing. Maybe she need not have strapped on the encumbrance of a head-mike in such a small, acoustically-efficient venue as the ICCR auditorium.
(From The Times of India, 21 September 2018)