Classical Indian dance troupe Chitresh Das Institute presented the world premiere of Charlotte Moraga’s Invoking the River at the ODC Theater October 14-16. Danced in the kathak storytelling form, it explores the connections between mythology and the environment, focusing on India’s sacred rivers.
Raga pianist Utsav Lal has composed, and performs live, an original score. The music is contemporary and yet supports this classical dance form perfectly.
Invoking the River begins with an original poem and an art film, both created by multi-media artist Alka Raghuram. The poem, written in the first-person voice of a river, reminds us that water is everywhere, in our teeth, our bones, our veins, in the world around us even in the galaxies. Colorful abstract watercolor paintings fill the screen, continually transforming from water to sky to the silhouette of a person.
The tinkling sound of bells is introduced as a dancer, wearing ghungroos, a musical anklet covered in brass bells, appears behind the audience. She dances gracefully down the side-aisle staircase. Moving backwards, facing the audience, her arms and hands mimic the movement of flowing water. She is followed by the three other dancers. They enter the stage area gliding over the surface, the soles of their feet never leaving the floor. Forming a diagonal, they become a stream of movement. Lit in dappled green light the dancers perform chakkars, or spins, each turning quickly on her own axis with skirt flaring into a perfect circle, as her feet keep the complicated rhythm.
This section is entitled Origin. It tells the story of the heavens opening and rivers flowing to Earth their fall softened by Shiva’s locks. My friends sometimes avoid dance performances because they fear they won’t understand it. The journey into the unknown, the creating of my own meaning is one reason I enjoy dance. Some in the audience were familiar with the river creation myth. I lacked that entry point, and yet I fully understood the water imagery. The glowing joy of the performers spoke louder than words.
Kathak dancers use abhinyaya, or the art of expression and mime, to tell their stories. Throughout the evening I was impressed with the expressiveness of the dancers faces and postures.
Each of the dancers performs a dance based on the poem she has written. These poems are included in the program but not read out loud. Kritika Sharma’s piece is about Alaknanda, a Himalayan river. She dances with delight and confidence, putting each thing in its place. Her world is one of balance and order. She moves her parallel arms in large dancing arcs. Sharma’s chakkars are amazingly fast, leaving us breathless as she exits, a blur.
The mood changes entirely for Vanita Mundhra’s solo Ganga. Her dance references the funereal rituals of cremating bodies along the Ganges. The pianist plucks strings inside the piano rather than playing the keys. The sound is haunting. Mundhra prays on her knees in a pulsing red light. Cupping water from a river and rubbing it on her arms and forehead. She stands, her fingers flickering, a blur around her face, trembling at a pace that makes them seem otherworldly. Later, Mundhra’s facial expressions and miming tell the story of a person approaching her, putting their hand on her shoulder. We feel her happiness at the arrival of the visitor and her sadness as she receives bad news.
After another evocative interlude of film and poetry, we discover dancer
Mayuka Sarukkai in a pool of light. She stretches, as she wakes for the day and in so doing encounters a wall. She reaches around herself with increasing urgency, her palm flat against the walls which it seems surround her entirely. The tabalchi (tabla player), Nilan Chaudhuri, matches each blow with his drum, as she pounds on the walls, stomping her feet.
Shruti Pai’s dance tells the story of a widow, but it is one of hope. Traditionally widows were stigmatized and not permitted to remarry, however remarriage is now possible. A white headscarf, the color of mourning in Hindu India, is used to communicate her widowhood. She looks at her skin with distain and pounds the floor in frustration. Facing the audience, she implores our help with her eyes and outstretched arms. When no help comes, she dives into the water and swims. Wrapping the scarf up in a bundle, she leaves it behind. Relieved of her burden she smiles once again.
For the finale the dancers enter in warm golden sidelight. Costumer Alka Garg has clothed them in blue dresses with impactful metallic gold accents. The shiny black floor reflects their images. They perform in ecstatic unison. Prancing across the stage trailing diaphanous scarves, they release the fabric, forming a river of silks. The final image is of the women praying along its banks. The order of the world is restored.
Invoking the River is a powerful remembrance of the importance of water. Raghuram’s verses remind us that while rivers carved the landscape, if we clog and poison them, they will vanish. Our prayers and penances are not enough. We must act to save ourselves and the sacred watershed.
Photo Credit: Bows from OCtober 14 opening night of Invoking the River. J. Norris photo Review by Jen Norris published October 15, 2022
Link to program here.
Chitresh Das Institute
“Invoking the River”
ODC Theater, San Francisco –October 14-16, 2022
CONCEPT AND CHOREOGRAPHY CHARLOTTE MORAGA
MUSIC COMPOSITION BY RAGA PIANIST UTSAV LAL
TABLA NILAN CHAUDHURI
MULTIMEDIA SCENIC DESIGN AND POETRY ALKA RAGHURAM
DANCERS VANITA MUNDHRA, SHRUTI PAI, MAYUKA SARUKKAI, KRITIKA SHARMA
COSTUMES ALKA GARG
LIGHTING DESIGN ALLEN WILLNER