Celebrating Usiloquy’s multiculturalism

by Lewis J. Whittington for The Dance Journal

A trip to the Asian Arts Initiative gallery and performance space on Vine St. is always a reminder that multi-culturalism in the arts is a vital aspect of Philadelphia cultural life.  Their current gallery exhibit is a multi-media visual art and oral history of LGBTQ activism in Nepal, for instance.   On October 13, dance fans were viewing the unique exhibit before and after a concert by the contemporary Bharatanatyam dance company, Usiloquy Dance Designs to celebrate the troupe’s 10th anniversary year.

Usiloquy’s Artistic director Shaily Dadiala presenting a mixed genre concert in the gallery’s performance space highlighted the troupe’s ongoing commitment to cultural diversity and artistic collaborations with Philly artists from other dance disciplines. Joining Usiloquy in this concert showcase were The Lady Hoofers and choreographer-dancer Gabrielle Revlock.

Starting the event off was a sumptuous musical set by virtuoso sitarist Thomas Wave, and Tabla percussionist Radha Gopinath. They performed a musical improvisation of mood-setting Ragas in the Hindustani classical tradition, then played Wave’s composition “Dreams at Play” a perfect atmospheric for the dance evening to come.

Dadiala reminisced to the audience about her collaboration with Revlock at the Annenberg Center several years ago and described how they both wanted to explore the differences and similarities from between their dance forms.  Revlock’s concert piece ‘Love is Like a Butterfly’ in which she partners a hoop. She uses it as both apparatus and a sculptural frame, and absurd prop in a scenario of whimsy and fun.  Dadiala admitted that she has not yet decoded the meanings, but remains fascinated.

Chopin’s piano music floats around her, the music intermittently stops (sound designs by Aleksandr Frolov) and Revlock sometimes freezes the passage or changes the scenario. She pulls books out of her bag and she strikes a pose inside the arc of the hoop.   Of course, the hoop ends up at various times whirling around her body- at times like a force field around her body, or her torso seems trapped by it and casts it off. It never becomes an object that is meant to spin or visually hypnotize.  In one sequence, while she reads a book, Revlock sheds her jeans and blouse, without letting the hoop fall (ala Grace Jones).  Whimsical physical comedy informs Revlock’s movement, but behind it is also enigmatic character dance.

The Lady Hoofers’ artistic director Kat Richter likes to explore new tap forms and unconventional music, but for this concert, it was straightforward old-time tap.  First, dancer Katie Budris’ “Nothing But Noise” choreographed as an acapella duet danced by Tamera Dallam and Mary Kay Selby. It was an all flinty esprit and vintage syncopation expected from classic tap partnering.

Then Caleb Teicher’s “…and Away” was a tap meditation for five dancers, with an interesting theme about solitude and socialization, with Teicher also writing breezily straightforward tap vocabulary.  Dancers introduced solo phrases, almost shyly, another dancer drops in their zone with mirroring steps and extending the phrase with their own variation.  These sequences led to spirited, if too brief, ensemble tap dialogue with this quintet of dancers.

Dadiala presented an excerpt from a larger piece based on ‘Nritta’ – the abstract dance element of Bharatanatyam-   The choreography explores what Dadiala describes as “aspects of pure rhythmic dance- Nritta- and expressive emoting– a vast thesaurus from which limitless stories begs to be danced.”

This concert piece excerpted from Dadiala’s 2014 piece Ragas & Airs scored to ‘Khanda- 5 Cities’ by Irish jazz musician Ronan Guilfoyle. Dadiala noted that musical cultural dialogue between Irish and Indian musicians dates back to the 1800’s.

The choreographic cultural fusion is built around the classical architecture of Indian dance –  The Indian ‘statuesque’ positions, the fluid choreographic phrasing of the steps and ‘Mudra’ hand dances, arrow straight and arch movement of the arms.  The dance iconography is given modernist expression, reflexive of the music.

Dadiala and dancers Aney Abraham, Mira Sophia Adometto and the virtuosic Sruthi Muralidaran are costumed in gorgeously embroidered dance saris, their hands, and feet red inked with symbols, the dancers’ ankle bells punctuating the rhythmic mystical energy.

This excerpt was a too-brief a showcase for a very specific cultural dialogue.   And that dialogue continued after the performance with a meet the artists’ reception in the main gallery with Indian and Irish recipes on the buffet table.

Usiloquy’s mission is to give India’s classical, contemporary and folkloric dance more visibility in Philly and encourage collaborations with other Philly artists in different genres.  Let’s hope that this concert was a concert preview of more to come.

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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