Usiloquy Dance Designs' Philadholphia
Dancer - Meghna Gummadi

Usiloquy Dance Designs’ Philadholphia

The blackbox, at its core, is an emergent space. It’s a space for discovery, for experimentation; a space for asking the unanswerable questions and trying our hardest to come up with not answers, but even more questions to follow. It’s no wonder that it’s the go-to spot for boundary-breaking performances around the world. Here, in our little corner of Pennsylvania, FringeArts’ blackbox space turned its attention towards the question: how do we find contemporary connections with Indian cultural heritage? That’s what Usiloquy Dance Designs and Rini Music examine in their artistic work on a day-to-day basis – we were just lucky, as an audience, to get a peek into those musings on a warm Saturday in November.

Shaily Dadiala, artistic director of Usiloquy Dance Designs, curated PhilaDHOLphia (a dhol being a drum traditionally used in Indian music), a delightful evening (and afternoon!) of sensorial mixings focused on how the Indian diaspora takes in and creates a new understanding of tradition. “My motivation to choreograph,” writes Dadiala in the company’s artistic statement, “is informed by staying authentic to the techniques of a dance style that has thrived unbroken for thousands of years while experimenting with contemporary, global themes, multi-genre artists and modalities.” Usiloquy takes Bharatanatyam and infuses its many mudras and rich storytelling capabilities with a fresh take – and PhilaDHOLphia was no different. A remount of their 2009 work, each dance in the offering was constructed around one of the bright flavors found in chaat, a traditional Indian street food.

Shaily Dadiala was the dancer in the first piece, titled “Let it engulf you.” Described as a “meditation on sweetness,” Dadiala charmed the audience with fluid moves and bright smiles. Her gestures evoked a story of motherhood: we saw her care for a child and watch them grow up, cajoling and following them in the simultaneously kindhearted and worried way only a mother can. Dadiala’s face was tender with each new emotion discovered, and her performance set the stage for just how Usiloquy contemporizes the dance form, keeping the percussive beats of the foot and the delicate power of the hands while introducing flurries of sweeps and turns into this new narrative.

Meghna Gummadi’s piece, “She is not what she seems,” was next on the bill, a dive into the sour-tanginess of chaat focused around the goddess Durga. Gummadi balanced the previous movement themes of motherhood and fertility, something Durga is known for, and combined it with her fierceness on the battlefield. Bells, usually worn on the ankles, sounded clearer and more divine on the fingers of Gummadi as she strutted around the stage, chest held high and arms raised in victory in between precise, held moments of focus on individual limbs.

“The salt that rocks the world” was next, a contemplative solo by Aney Abraham. But don’t be fooled by the so-called ubiquity of salt: Abraham’s dance was anything but plain. Her use of Nrythia, expressive emoting, was exquisitely done, captivating the whole audience just with one quirk of an eyebrow or one slide of the gaze.

To cap the solos off, Atima Chakraborty performed “Watch out Stereotypes!” a piece that allowed her to show off her pure control of form as well as her grace and agility. Chakraborty moved with power and ease to the sounds of Indian streets bustling in the soft rain.

In order to send more of a message about the harmonious combinations of the masalas of chaat, other “flavors” of dancers appeared in the individual solos as duets or simply added visual texture. Ankita Reddy, notably, did not have a solo, but wove in and out of the other dances the way a chef tastes a dish at every mark of new flavor. Reddy’s movements were incredibly strong and dazzling to the eye; I found myself wishing we had seen her more, if only for her noted stage presence. 

Rini

In the interlude between the last solo and the final dance, performance group Rini music played synth-infused stylings of Carnatic-based, Southern Indian music. Gorgeous on its own, musicians Rini Raghavan, Maxime Cholley, Marcelo Maccagnan, and Marco Bolfelli played fast and furious, with lilts and swoons abound. While watching, I had the hope that the two performance groups might find a way to fully let their contemporizing mix together in the future – it would have been beautiful to see these dances with live music.

To cap the night off, Usiloquy came back all together with their most powerful piece: “Dance is the food of life.” Complete with flower petals strewn across the stage by the dancers throughout the piece, it was a swirling, back-and-forth nod to the ability for people to be full of life, surprise, and many, many flavors. After a generous Q&A with the audience, hugs and cheers echoed from the walls of the blackbox – now transformed into a cultural celebration – as bowls of chaat were shared by all.

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