by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal
The first thing you notice about the dancers of Usiloquy Dance Design, who performed their Diwali Program as part of the Asian Arts Initiative’s monthly Open Mic last night, is how very un-Indian most of them look. Yes, they’re wearing rich, saffron colored tunics and their fingers are painted with the traditional red altha, but they’re as diverse as the audience (which includes both experienced slam poets and first timers).
Herein lays the beauty of the company. Founded in 2008 by choreographer Shaily Dadiala, Usiloquy utilizes the technique of Indian classical dance to push the envelope. The costumes are more modern, the music more international and the choreography, although rooted in the vocabulary of Bharatanatyam, is anything but ancient.
The performance comprised six works, including excerpts from Chaat, created in 2009, and Chandroutie, which premiered during PIFA in 2011. The first two pieces, Mahaganapathim and Alarippu, gave the dancers the chance to show off their technical skill. In Mahaganapathim, dancers Mira Adornetto, Christine Campbell and Julie Meyers played a precise ball/heel pattern with their feet while maintaining an enchanting, lyrical fluidity in their upper bodies. Although there were several long pauses that detracted from the impact of the work, the creative staging was both effective and unexpected.
In Alarippu Dadiala and company dancer Mansi Bhagwate darted their eyes from side to side as they sunk to the floor. I’m always amazed by the many movement patterns embodied by a single dancer in forms like Indian classical dance and flamenco—the lower body seems to inhabit one sphere while the upper inhabits another—but Dadiala and Bhagwate took this too a new level with the nuanced movements of their eyes and chins.
Rain was every bit as moving as it was in PIFA, although the dancers’ timing was a bit off last night. Written by poet Mahadai Das and sung by Ruth Osman Rose, the music spans several different cultures and genres of music. Dadiala’s choreography juxtaposed traditional movements with the more modern score; the result was gestural and prayer-like yet not stilted.
Dadiala’s solo, Salt, shook things up a bit. For starters, it was performed to rock music. Secondly, it was inspired by the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Ghandi’s legacy of non-violent protest, as demonstrated by the salt march of 1930. In an emerald green tunic and white sash, Dadiala began facing upstage, her arms forming a diagonal line. She knelt down, leaning forward as she crossed her hands behind her back. At times her palms were flat, extended outward as if to say “stop” but by the end of the piece, they were folded together to mimic the flight of a bird.
The evening’s final piece, Chaat, was set to a commission by Philadelphia duo Amrita. One of the greatest difficulties when it comes to introducing new audiences to Indian classical dance is the music; to the untrained ear, it seems atonal and even arrhythmic at times but Chaat was upbeat—even a bit funky—and it had the audience bopping along in their seats. Usiloquy is to be applauded for its efforts to bridge the gap between traditional dance and modern audiences, and for doing so with such sensitivity, creativity and gusto.
Kat Richter is a freelance writer and teaching artist. She is also the co-founder of The Lady Hoofers, Philadelphia’s only all-female tap company, and holds with an MA in Dance Anthropology. Her work can be found at www.katrichter.com.