Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Power Not Yet Realized: Sampradaya Dance Creations' Pralaya

​ A scene from Pralaya, by Sampradaya Dance Creations. (Photo: OnUp Photography)

"I am the beat of each heart and the rhythm of each breath; I am time, the brilliance of all creation." So begins Pralaya, a multidisciplinary dance presentation which seeks to be timeless despite having rooted itself in a centuries-old epic poem compiling the myths, wars and legends of ancient India. Ponderous and confusing in places, it doesn't quite succeed. 

Combining voice, text, mask, rear-projection visuals and a unique blend of classical dance idioms from India and Indonesia, Pralaya is too confined within Hindu culture to have wide appeal. An artistically ambitious creation, its North American premiere took place at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre on Nov. 12. A nine-city Canadian tour that took in Montreal and Vancouver concluded at Flato Markham Theatre some two weeks later. The reception was perhaps more reverential than enthusiastic.

Taking as its subject matter the cosmic clash between light and darkness explored in the original Vedic poem, Pralaya grows tedious when adhering too closely to an ancient storyline concerning the impending battle among the five virtuous Pandava brothers, who are allies of Lord Krishna, and the greedy Kaurava brothers following a crooked game of dice. A surfeit of narrative detail and a series of expostulating statements having to do with "the virtues of righteousness" and "tales of greed, lust and revenge" cause the work to seem old-fashioned and moralizing, an effect which undermines its relevance.

Still there is much to admire, from Jasmine Sawati's poetic script and Arun Srinivasan's dramatic light design to the sculpted clarity of the eight dancers
four from Indonesia and two each from India and Canada –  and Praveen D Rao's original score merging the percussive polyrhythms of classical Indian music and the smooth melodies of Javanese gamelan. Seamlessly integrated, the various elements produce an irrepressible dynamism which helps push Pralaya forward and keep boredom at bay. 

​ A scene from Pralaya. (Photo: OnUp Photography)
Plans are to remount the work at a later date. But Pralaya, whose title means "the end of one beginning and the beginning of another end," needs a rethink before going back on the road. The problem lies with its inspiring text, the Mahabharata, an ancient book 15 times the length of the Bible whose more than one hundred thousand stanzas make it the longest work in all of literature. Deep, complex and sprawling, the epic poem has for centuries inspired artists to interpret its core message of peace as a moral order, but with mixed results. For many, it is often a case of biting off more than can be chewed.

The English film and theatre director Peter Brook, for instance, became overwhelmed when attempting to translate the Mahabharata into cinematic language in the mid to late 1980s. The resulting six-hour movie, rising out of an original nine-hour stage play, was a critical flop, mired in research and a literal depiction of characters first encountered on the page. Brook, who just last year was said to be attempting a revival of the Mahabharata for the London stage, also faced a charge of cultural appropriation. On this count, at least, the creators of Pralaya cannot be faulted. 

The brainchild of Indo-Canadian bharatanatyam expert Lata Pada, Pralaya is a collaboration between the acclaimed dancer's Mississauga-based Sampradaya Dance Creations company and the Javanese dance master, Wayan Dibia. The team created the work over a three-year period and mostly in Bali, an ancient colony of India where the Mahabharata, which contains the Hindu sacred book, the Bhagavad Gita, was long ago adopted by the ruling class as a primary influence on Indonesian art and culture.

Like Brook before her, Pada has chosen to interpret only sections of the poem, in particular "The Game of Dice" story describing the dynastic battle for power between the related Pandava and Kaurava clans, reportedly a historic event. As retold in the Mahabharata, the narrative represents an allegory of good versus evil. But in this case there are no victors. Destruction claims all. "Hatred alone outlasts," says Pada in her prologue, speaking directly to the audience.

It's a potent statement, dovetailing with current events as described in program notes making explicit reference to "the human crisis in Syria" and the "senseless violence in San Bernardino," the scene of recent race crime killings in the U.S. Not mentioned here is Canada's own brush with terrorism in the form of the 1985 Air India bombing which claimed the lives of hundreds, including the direct members of Pada's own family, her husband and two young daughters. Pada knows first-hand what it is to lose all and how the human spirit can endure, even under great strain and suffering. Chaos engenders continuity. She, who has moved past tragedy to invigorate classical Indian dance with new ideas and influences borrowed from her life here in the West, is awe-inspiring proof of that.

But little of what might be called real-life drama is present in Pralaya a pity because had Pada and her fellow artists found a way to combine the present with the past they might have better connected with a 21st-century spectator with no prior knowledge of the original Sanskrit text. The rear projections only fleetingly reference contemporary reality, the image of a bulldozer tearing up a tract of land, for instance. But this in no way goes far enough in communicating an idea of mass destruction as an ever-present threat to human existence. Other problems include a convoluted story that continually intrudes on the dance as its own form of artistic expression, causing the universal claims articulated at the beginning (and in dance terms) to go unrealized. This is frustrating because the fascinating mixture of intricate Balinese finger movements and percussive footwork born of Indian dance forms a stylized portal through which a viewer could enter to gain an affinity with the subject matter. The narration, so heavy and lumbering, weighs it all down, stifling engagement. Far from timeless, Pralaya is more a cultural mash-up that feels out of sync with a contemporary audience.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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