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Bharatanatyam dancers.

One afternoon, as ballet dancers leave Pearland’s Dancescape by Joyce studio—the kind of uniformed students in leotards with matching white stockings—the ambience changes as girls in patterned salwar kameez (traditional loose pant with long tunic) arrive tying their long dupattas, or shawls, around their waist.

With the new group, Dancescape ditches tutus and pirouettes, and, as night falls, the space transforms into a Bharatanatyam and Kathak dance school. Those familiar with these classical Indian dances would expect to hear a Carnatic vocalist or the pitter-patter of a double-sided mridangam drum, but rehearsals commenced with the elegant and sensual strumming of a Spanish Flamenco guitar.

Silambam Houston Dance Company is broadening its scope with their Saturday production of Kāvya: Poetry in Motion as they head from the suburbs to the Midtown Arts and Theater Center. The production explores the several facets of human emotion by weaving together poetry ranging from 13th Century Sufi works to 19th and 21st Century Gaelic, Estonian, Dutch, Spanish, Indian and British literature. Not only are the literary works recited in their native language, but the music is a confluence of Western contemporary and Carnatic. Reliving bittersweet memories, new love, the human urge to explore, and the need for inclusion and tolerance are bound to strike an emotional chord with any audience member, regardless of background.

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Silambam Houston rehearses at Dancescape by Joyce studio.

“It came while reflecting on the poem The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, which is engraved on the Statue of Liberty,” says Dr. Lavanya Rajagopalan, artistic director and lead choreographer, about the inspiration for the show. “It brought to mind another poem, this one in the Indian language Tamil, by a celebrated freedom fighter and activist. The similarities in thought and feeling between the two poems were uncanny, and that led to first an academic and then an artistic interest in common threads in global poetry that could be portrayed in dance.”  

Bharatanatyam is religious, originating in the Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu, an Indian southern state, and is known for its intricate footwork, angular and swift body movements, and expressive facial features. Kathak, another predominant style known for its turns and graceful and fluid upper body movements, originated in northern India by traveling Kathakas, or storytellers.

During rehearsals, lead Kathak dancer and teacher, Kalpana Subbarao, performed an interpretation of Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda’s Tonight I Write the Saddest Lines, using facial expressions to act out and denote the heavy grief and lustfulness of the poem. To widen their audience and introduce the city to this art form, Silambam's focus shifted from religion to sentiment.

Kāvya is a collaborative effort from the Houston arts community. Auritro Majumder, University of Houston English professor, and Fran Sanders, artistic director of local non-profit Public Poetry, lent their expertise. Acclaimed dancer Keith Cross is a guest choreographer for the production in coordination with Odissi dancer Supradipta Datta.

“Houston is such a wonderfully diverse city, with such an appreciative arts audience who are always game for a new experience and open to new ideas,” Rajagopalan says. “The same is true of its arts creators, who are among the friendliest, most collegial and collaborative I have ever met. With this production, I hope to reflect some of this diversity and sharing spirit that characterizes Houston, and in that way give back to and enrich the community and its arts scene.” 

Kāvya: Poetry in Motion on Saturday, Aug. 19, at 3:30 and 6:30 p.m. MATCH, 3400 Main St. 713-521-4533. More info at matchhouston.org.

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