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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Nava Dance Theatre “Rogue Gestures/Foreign Bodies” Dec 9-11, 2022 ODC Theater, San Francisco

As a novice viewer of classical Indian dance, it was with some trepidation that I took my seat in the ODC Theater for Nava Dance Theatre’s (Nava) presentation of Rogue Gestures/Foreign Bodies, in early December. I need not have worried; I was in excellent hands and in for a treat. Nava’s Artistic Director Nadhi Thekkek and her Creative Co-Instigators Shruti Abhishek and Kamala Devam use a combination of bharatanatyam and what they describe as “experimental movement” to tell their stories. This melding of the classical movement with more naturalistic gestures makes the stories more easily relatable to a present-day Western audience.

Photo: Full Company Bows for Rogue Bodies/Foreign Gestures Co-Music Directors Kalaisan Kalaichelvan and Roopa Mahadevan; photo by J Norris

The musical approach is similarly eclectic. There was raga music and improvisation with the expected Indian instruments and vocalists. Co-Music Directors Roopa Mahadevan and Kalaisan Kalaichelvan use the two-drum tabla, but also western instruments such as a keyboard and standing bass. There are even some recorded tracks that slip seamlessly into the mix. The varied choice of raga and tala (rhythm) is used to great effect throughout, reinforcing the emotion of the narrative.

Rogue Gestures/Foreign Bodies unfolds in a series of a dozen compact vignettes. Each shines a light on a different facet of the experience of immigrant women and more universally, women in today’s society balancing many expectations and responsibilities. Each evokes a central emotion, be it the sorrow of leaving a child or the pleasures of being in community. The printed program contains a title and short summary, or query, for each section which helps the uninitiated find their footing. The performance is so well-crafted that these framing words turned out to be unnecessary in most cases.

Thekkek and her collaborators have created a piece with a clarity of vision and a refreshing succinctness. The piece relies much less on text than other recent pieces exploring similar themes. The absence of spoken word allows us to hear with our hearts rather than our heads. When we do briefly hear President Johnson speaking about the 1965 Immigration Act followed by the lyric “everything free in America,” from West Side Story, we pay attention.

The show begins and ends with the sound of waves lapping on a shore, a reminder that migration, and its consequences, is ongoing. The initial section entitled “Negotiations 1” finds the five corps dancers performing a bharatanatyam section. Their gentle leaps cause their ankle bells to tinkle. They intertwine their wrists creating swirling hand flowers and roll both arms in front of them, the motion of water over hills. After a time, the music shifts, becoming more haunting. The dancers walk in linear patterns, the curving softness left behind. The energy builds once more, as they perform in perfect unison having navigated between the freedom and expectations of their new lives in America.

“Negotiations 2” finds Thekkek literally making roots as she mimes nurturing a tree. She is not alone; she has Abhishek for company. They labor separately, but smile when their paths cross.

The “Visa” line is intimidating. Performers form a line and gesture up toward the invisible authority figure who will determine who enters and who is turned away. The women are polite to a fault as they display their documents. One is refused, her distress and disbelief evident on her face and slumping posture.

Whistling, that oh- so- American activity associated with work, is heard as Abhishek builds a pile of large box-shaped things at the start of “Bootstaps”. The percussive rhythm is steady. We feel the heaviness of each item as she bends, lifts, and carefully places it. She is pleased with her accomplishment, but then her pile becomes precarious. She jostles and pats the structure trying to keep it intact, before it seemingly collapses into a pile of dust and fragments. The singing becomes mournful as Abhishek repeatedly dismisses and rejects the help others offers her. This section has a reprise in Act 2. Abhishek is once again building alone, however after the breakdown she eventually accepts help.

“This is Work Too” finds Thekkek smiling as she slinks downstage bathed in a golden pool of light. She is feeling pretty and flirty as she practices glancing coyly over her shoulder. When a blue pool appears, she crosses to it. Transitioning from her beautiful woman persona to her builder/boss persona she flexes her muscles, carries weighty objects and counts on her fingers. Back and forth she goes between identities, the interval speed shortening each time. It is impossible to choose, and the speed of transition is exhausting. She ends on her knees, wrists bound, trapped in a square of light as a sorrowful violin plays.

“Lullaby” is heartbreaking. A mother rocks a child in her arms and plays hide and seek, only to then pack her knapsack and leave the child in the care of another woman, in order to work.

“Sneaking Out,” performed by Thekkek and Lalli Venkat, illustrates a contemporary and yet timeless mother- teen daughter relationship. They disagree about what the young woman can wear and at what time she must return home. Their conflict is interrupted by a phone-call from abroad, which launches the “Grief” section. Thekkek’s anguish is palpable as she learns of the passing of a beloved one back in India. We experience the devastating reality that distance and travel policies make it difficult, almost impossible, to return home if one’s parents are gravely ill or perish.

The sections of pure classical Indian dance shine like jewels, nestled within the larger melded format. We marvel at the exquisite finger positions, long elegant arm gestures, and amazingly unison of the dancers as they move quickly and joyfully, their smiles radiant. Nava Dance Theatre has gracefully married tradition with modernity, allowing for the exploration of modern themes to be appreciated across cultural divides.

Review published December 15, 2022


  • Artistic Director/Choreographer | Nadhi Thekkek

  • Creative Co-Investigators | Shruti Abhishek, Kamala Devam

  • Music Directors | Roopa Mahadevan and Kalaisan Kalaichelvan

  • Dancer Collaborators | Nadhi Thekkek, Shruti Abhishek, Lalli Venkat, Shelley Garg, Aishwarya Subramanian, Priyanka Raghuraman, Janani Muthaiya, Sanjana Melkote

  • Musician Collaborators | Roopa Mahadevan, Kalaisan Kalaichelvan, Aarti Shankar, Conal Sathi, Malavika Kumar, Aditya Iswara, Matt Small

  • Rehearsal Directors | Shruti Abhishek, Kamala Devam, Rasika Kumar (show week)

  • Lighting Design | Surabhi Bharadwaj

  • Stage Manager | Chi Chi Okanmah

  • Sound Engineer | Patrick Simms

  • Promotion Photography | Jyo Bhamidipati

  • PR Manager | Mary Carbonara

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