|Photo: Margo Moritz|
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
March 16, 2012
Having seen a fair amount of kathak dance over the past few years, I have come to understand some of its choreographic and performative qualities: fast pirouettes, facial gestures, eye expression and of course, the percussive foot patterns. But "Darbar" was my first foray into the genre of Indian Dance Drama, where the technical aspects of kathak are combined with a full-length narrative story.
"Darbar" takes its audience to the North Indian royal courts, at a time just prior to British rule. Here we encounter a civilization both steeped in indulgence and distracted by opulence; the King, played by Charlotte Moraga, is so engrossed in luxury that he is unaware of the plot to overthrow him (which is realized in the final scene).
Choreographed by Pandit Chitresh Das, narrated by Antara Bhardwaj, and performed by a talented company and community of dancers, "Darbar" was a delightful journey to an era of long ago. The style of storytelling in Indian Dance Drama is unique; the gestures purposely melodramatic and the narration's words pantomimed on stage. This allows for a clarity of message and speaks to the strong linkage between the narrative content and the structural choreography. The relationship between the dancers and the musicians (all of whom were onstage for the entire piece) was also very interesting. The group of musicians were very engaged and reactive to what was happening in the performance - they were an integrated part of the action. Strangely, the dancers didn't reciprocate, never referring to or acknowledging that the musicians were there at all. Perhaps this relationship is a common convention in this type of dance theater.
"Darbar's" musicians were virtuosic; utterly astounding. However, the sound balance between the dancers and the music was not great. The music, though completely fantastic, was far too loud, so much so that the sounds of the dancer's footbells got lost. The venue may have also contributed to this audio unevenness. Though the visual splendor of the Asian Art Museum's ballroom was perfect for the work, I wonder if the foot percussion was dissipating in the echo-y hall.