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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Ishami Dance Company in Interwoven Stories of Culture, Belonging and Change, OACC, May 10, 2024

Updated: May 13

What is a story but the weaving together of words and memories? We gather the stories within ourselves, passing them along, extending them with the threads of our lives.  What is the nature of stories? Do they shift? What is told?  And by whom? Whose stories are these? What of the ones that have been buried or erased? These are the questions that our storyteller, and guide for the evening, poses in preface to Ishami Dance Company’s Interwoven Stories of Culture, Belonging and Change, a one-night-only cooperative presentation of the Oakland Asian Cultural Center (OACC), immigration service organization ARTogether and ethnic dance consortium World Arts West, on the OACC stage.

Ishami is a South Asian contemporary dance company whose works combine movement, music and aesthetics of Western dance forms like modern, contemporary and jazz, with South Asian forms like Bharatnaytam, Kathak, Garba, and Chhau. Their performances offer a satisfying mosaic of influences, shaped around the heart of their mission to explore, unite, and amplify the diverse voices, stories, and histories of the South Asian diaspora

Dance and music, which transcend spoken language, have the more universal ability to speak to our hearts. Intermingling dance of myriad origins, Ishami finds the ideal medium to explore today legacies of cultures torn up and transplanted. Weaving gestures, shapes, and attitudes from these various dance forms into a single dance creates wondrously fresh movement.  A thumb folded over a palm or a lifted knee drawn from one discipline, combined with hand gestures from another, followed by some unique modern dance floor work creates a visual weaving of stories both old and new, from here and from abroad.

On this evening, Ishami offers a variety of works, some joyful, one sensuous, several heavy with the weight of the forced immigration caused by Partition in 1947, and the devastating parallels to today’s crisis in Gaza.  

A trio explores the primal wild nature in each of us.  It’s an athletic work that finds Akshay Radia kicking back from one partner in a slow-motion back handspring over the curved back of Ishika Seth. Later, the well-matched churning of their six legs carve the air, as they all balance in handstands. 

The storyteller sets the stage for art not about religion but about beauty and sensuality, as a quintet, in pant sarees and blouses of fuchsia and glittery gold embellishment, strike alluring poses. A curvaceous woman, with a hand on a hip, fetchingly frames her face with the back of her hand, while her eyes flirt mischievously with us.

Ishami Dance Company performing a dance of beauty and sensuality at OACC; Photo J. Norris

Our assumptions about gender are challenged when, after several minutes, we realize Amit Patel, with close cropped beard, is among the lovelies batting their eyelashes and stroking their hands sexily up their legs.  Patel mimes the roundness of breasts by twisting his cupped hands chest level and then brushing a hand over head and down his back in a gesture that speaks of long lustrous hair.

A hip hop dance battle highlights how the traditional shapes of a statue of a Hindu* goddess has been assimilated into American street dance. The flexed feet and sharply angled limbs in back spins, long diagonal head balances, and the unspooling of criss-crossed legs take on a new glow in this diasporic context. Parading down the center aisle, the hip hop duo seed a body music rhythm of stomp, clap, three stomps, repeat, which the audience thunderously adopts.

A dance battle between hip hop artists and a South Asian classical dancer Ishami Dance Company, Photo: J. Norris

Our frivolity is curtailed, as the story teller speaks of border crossings, displacement, abandonment and forced migration.  Travelers, each in their own culture’s costume, move haltingly in a diagonal from upstage.  One has a cane, another clutches a bundle that might be a baby.  They look forward in apprehension and back in longing, kneeling periodically to note the passage of time or space. Panic emerges, sending the group swirling out in disparate directions.

Ishami Dance Company performing a dance of migration at OACC; Photo J. Norris

Confusion and distress are writ large upon their faces, as they shed the things that matter most: a father’s suitcase, an ancestral mother’s jewelry, a shawl, a book. Finally the only person on stage is a man in white, who removes his raised white skullcap, carefully folds it, and leaves it and the outward manifestation of his religion, behind.

In a solo of sadness and loss, Seth, discovering the pile of relinquished items, honors them with her butterfly hands, as a woman’s voice sings poignantly in a foreign language. Her memories of lost love transform to the miming of childhood games, of hop-scotch, and balancing along the edges of walls. The stage edge becomes a suitable stand in as she places her feet carefully one in front of the other.

One person’s loss is often another’s gain and after Seth’s baleful crawl down the aisle, Patel begins to collect the lost treasures, including a prayer mat I missed in the initial migration, taking time with each item, to channel the spirit of the former owner. Placing his forehead to the mat, then swirling across the stage with a transparent pink shawl fluttering behind his outstretched arms, walking the stage edge, as Seth did, while draped in her scarf. Too soon he unceremoniously gathers everything into a pillow case and perhaps assimilates them into his life, where their stories will change.

Ishami Dance Company performing a joyful indivisualistic finale at OACC; Photo J. Norris

The storyteller’s final queries are about home. Is it a place? A Person? A country? How do we find home within ourselves in an adopted land? In ancestry?  Concluding that belonging comes when we write our own stories and cultivate joy, the stage fills with the full company of nine dancers.  In peach chiffon, silver sequin and salmon red pants, they form rippling lines, as they cooperatively take their cues from their nearest neighbor’s wave-like energy. As a company they embody their vision that there is room for all experiences, that neither gender, size, age, nor technical prowess of a specific dance form shall determine a dancer’s participation.    Individuality is celebrated as each offers their favored dance moves.  Hip hop dancers spin, Patel carries Nitika Bhatia triumphantly, and in a moment of unison all leap, legs cocked at square angles, faces smiling.

We learn at the post show talkback, that the dancers have unique entry points to the work. Some are American born, others newly arrived.  Several met as adolescents in local Bollywood dance troupes, another pair studied Garba in a friend’s garage. As they speak, we can hear how much the unique experience of dancing in a supportive non-competitive environment, free from the pressured rigidity of classical dance, means to each. Ishami’s intercultural creation process is just what the world needs, and the best part is that even the unstudied viewer can feel the transformative power of dance in the hands of this young but already impactful Bay Area company.

Review by Jen Norris, published May 11, 2024; Credits added and casting clarified May 13, 2024


Production Credits:

Director & Choreographer: Amit Patel & Ishika Seth


Akshay Radia, Amit Patel, Drasti Mody, Esha Saini, Ishika Seth, Nitika Bhatia, Ria Desai, Saffatt Al-Mansoor, Sanjana Kerketta

Script Writer: Ishika Seth

Narrator: Vineet Mishra

Costumes: Ishika Seth

Videographer: Leo Omar

The works are titled:

Primal Rhythms (athletic trio)

Kāma (Sensual quintet)

Conversations (Hip Hop duet)

Homelands (Migration work)

Zariya (end ensemble piece)

Conversations and Homelands were previously presented as part of Pehchaan but re-adapted to the new space since OACC was a proscenium setting.

*The Hindu God reference in Hip Hop is that of Kali. One of the creators/pioneers of Hip Hop Mr Wiggles was telling us in a dance intensive, how he and many of his crew back in the the Bronx drew inspiration from the Hindu God Kali and her many hands, and various South Asian hand gestures to create movement to experiment with. This was also a time where there was unique music overlap and sampling that allowed for a unique intersectionality between Hip Hop culture and South Asian music & dance.

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