Friday, June 17, 2011

A Dance of Epic Proportions: Taj at Luminato

Kabir Bedi & Sampradaya Dance Creations dancers (Photo by Divine Method Photography)

The Taj Mahal would be impossible to recreate today as a piece of architecture. Just imagine the expense of the gemstones used to decorate the mausoleum’s marble walls, not to mention the labour. According to legend, the building of this temple of grief and everlasting beauty in northern India had not only cost literally a king’s fortune to make, but also claimed many human lives. It also cost its progenitor, Shah Jahan, the 17th century Moghul who had constructed it as a memorial to his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal (who had died in childbirth), his freedom. According to legend, toward the end of his life, his own son, Aurangzeb, had him imprisoned for having spent everything in the land – riches, resources, human beings – to create this domed folly conceived in bereavement, what the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore once poignantly called, “a tear drop on the cheek of time.”

But with Taj, a dance/theatre work that had its world premiere last week at the Fleck Dance Theatre in Toronto as part of the ongoing Luminato Festival of the Arts which commissioned it (the production is slated to tour North America, Europe and India in the fall of 2012), award-wining dancer and choreographer Lata Pada has done the next best thing: a recreation of the Taj Mahal in human terms. It is by focusing on the story of filial hatred and revenge (Aurangzeb had lost his mother after all, and he held his father responsible), in addition to the ancillary theme of mortals seeking immortality through acts of art and beauty, that this staged evocation of the Taj Mahal comes alive as architecture with a beating heart.

Fragile emotions, like yearning and loss, stand in for the jasper and jade used to make the intricate and stylized designs on the structure’s fabled interior. But it is more the combination of percussive kathak, as performed by an ensemble of dancers pulled from three continents – among them India’s acclaimed Meghranjani Hirani as Mumtaz and Malaysia’s Sooraj Subramaniam as the young Shah Jahan – and nuanced acting by Canada’s Lisa Ray and Bollywood’s Kabir Bedi that most successfully captures the dazzling virtuosity that remains the Taj Mahal’s enduring legacy.

Sampradaya dancers (Photo by Divine Method Photography)
Taj was conceived to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Sampradaya Dance Creations, Pada’s classical Indian dance troupe in Mississauga, Ont., just west of Toronto. The 90-minute intermissionless work also features an original script by Governor General Award-winning Canadian playwright John Murrell, with direction by Tom Diamond, in addition to an original score (with sitar and tabla and other percussion instruments) and sound design by Praveen D. Rao. The choreography is by 81-year old kathak legend, Kumudini Lakhia who takes a narrative approach to her ancient Northern India dance form, infusing the foot stamping and dervish spinning with mimetic gestures and sculpted poses that dramatically and elegantly tell the behind-the-scenes love story of the Taj Mahal. Sets and lighting are by Phillip Silver who ingeniously uses filmed projections, as well as scintillating India cloth, to evoke the complexity and splendour of the Taj Mahal. While ambitious for a small company in the Canadian suburbs wanting to scale the heights of such an iconic and ancient structure, Taj succeeds in being as luminous and poignant as the building that inspired it.

Taking to the stage to introduce last Sunday’s presentation of Taj before a packed house, Pada said her fascination with the Taj Mahal lay not so much with the marbled domes and minarets that have made the Taj Mahal a monument looming large not only in Agra, where it is located, but in the collective human imagination, but with what lay behind it: “the canvas of human drama, with its complex themes of ambition, revenge and rivalry.” These are themes no doubt she has long contemplated, being the mother of two daughters and the wife of a husband who perished when Air India Flight 182 exploded over the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985, claiming 329 lives. Her family was en route to India to be reunited with Pada who was then studying bharatanatyam, an ancient Indian dance form, under the tutelage of her guru. They never made it. Over the decade, Pada has been the visible face of the disaster, emerging as a prominent spokeswomen for others affected by the act of mass murder when it became the subject of a crown investigation. Her art became her refuge from the pain, her way of coming to terms with the real life drama of good versus evil playing itself out in her world. In a past Luminato festival, she has danced some of that anguish in solo performances. But this time, she leaves the performing to others, preferring to remain behind the scenes, likely as a figure of inspiration herself to the performers.

Lisa Ray (Photo by Sid Sawant)
They include Ray, making her stage debut with Taj, after previously performing in Canada’s Oscar-nominated and critically acclaimed film, Deepa Mehta’s Water. Celebrated also for her beauty, Ray remains tantalizingly veiled throughout Taj in her role as Jahanara, daughter of the imprisoned Shah, who sustained a burn injury early in her life. Her scarring serves the work as a metaphor for a central theme explored in the piece: the price of beauty. As Jahanara, Ray draws out her father’s memories of the creation of the monument to his dead wife while also posing the question: was it worth it? “Thousands of lives were swallowed up in one love,” she says with heartfelt voice, underscoring the dramatic tension at the core of Murrel’s poetic and philosophical script. While her brother, the reigning emperor played with curled lip by Canadian actor Sid Sawant, wants to condemn him for what he calls his selfishness, the daughter is more compassionate, if not empathetic: “she is not dead while your dream lives,” says Ray, paraphrasing what is an essential premise of art making, the quest for eternity. “The dream of beauty was worth the sorrow.”

As her father, a believer in art and beauty no matter the cost, Bedi is a marvel. The veteran of over 60 Bollywood films as well as Octopussy, in which he played the villain to Roger’s Moore’s James Bond, the Indian-born actor fully inhabits the role of the ageing Moghul, his broad shoulders and shuffling gait at once capturing the grandeur and the tragedy of this 17th century leader. His voices booms and falters, making him seem not unlike an Indian version of Lear, railing against the injustice of life while also defending his right to rule as he sees fit. Bedi plays him like a fugitive from the past and as a kind of larger-than-life Romantic hero. His character’s stance, throughout this most engaging and provocative dance-drama, is that art transcends the motives and the actions that begat it in human nature.

Kabir Bedi & Lisa Ray (Photo by Divine Method Photography)
The Shah's memories are rendered through dance: solos, duets and ensemble pieces. But unlike in traditional kathak, the body alone doesn't communicate a story. In this case, all the actors provide the narrative details; the dancers, the majority trained by Pada at her Mississauga studio, tend mostly to flesh their descriptions out through dramatized movement. This is perhaps the only drawback to the production: that the dancing doesn't stand alone.

Where the choreography is most powerful is when it is seamlessly integrated into the melange of other theatrical elements and doesn't need explaining. This occurred more or less once, during the court scene where a seer (dramatically played by Toronto dancer Sashar Zarif) prophecies the death of Mumtaz after becoming possessed by a vision of the future that causes his body to spin and convulse as he chants. The dancing here drove the narrative, without oral embellishment. 

But whether decadence or genius, at the end of the day, the Taj Mahal lives on, as does the memory of the woman who inspired it. The man who built it has never been as vivid in mind, until now. Taj is a monument to him as much as his grand obsession. Was it worth it? The answer is, yes.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. She is also the author of the national best-selling memoir, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre). Visit her website for more information,

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