Based on a short story by Mahasveta Devi, Encounter, by internationally based (USA/India) Navarasa Dance Theatre1, opened Vancouver's inaugural 'Diwali in BC' at the York Theatre. A combination of Indian folk and classical dance, theatre, aerial work, and live singing, Encounter strove to tell the story of Dopdi Mehjen, an indigenous woman and necessity-driven revolutionary, who is eventually captured and tortured by the authorities. The title of the show refers to a local euphemism for 'death by police torture'.
Encounter is layered with culturally-specific allusions and images. The name of the main character, Dopdi, evokes the Hindu mythological character Draupadi, who, after being forfeited by her husband in a game of dice, is degraded and humiliated by the male victor as he attempts to strip her of her sari, driving her to revenge-filled madness. The challenge with this particular production is precisely how many layers were included, attempted, and sometimes left unaddressed.
Aesthetically, there were a few moments that stood out including a wonderful, high-energy kalaripayattu/martial arts inspired dance sequence with the army officers early in the piece— Sunil Kumar Thankachan, who played the imperious leader Senanayak, was particularly exuberant. Aparna Sindhoor's charming and lyrical voice, often unaccompanied by any music, lent an intimate and deeply human layer to Dopdi, as she sang coded messages and goodwill to her local tribespeople.
However, it was apparent in the production that certain members of the company possess virtuosities that others do not. The company member's relative training—in martial arts, aerial work, classical Indian dance,—meant that the group choreography lacked consistent synchronization and uniformity of physical lines. The piece also relied heavily on the spectator's ability to interpret complex and culturally-specific performance material without explanation or assistance. And, while the company need not explain each and every choice or layer, choosing not to explain constitutive elements of the narrative meant that understandings of the performance were skewed towards those who already possessed the relevant cultural codes. Perhaps this ambiguity is why the ending sequence of Encounter did not quite land the way it may have been intended:
Dopdi, emerging after a stylized sequence suggesting hours of torture, stands partially unclothed refusing to be dressed again. Enraged, she repeatedly demands “come on! 'counter me!” She grows more and more emphatic, eyes widening, voice growing raspy, as the male officers around her stand aghast. Sindhoor leans on her Bharatanatyam training, here, spreading her arms and staring menacingly into the audience. However, the emotional quality of horror and awe, does not translate. Sindhoor keeps her voice deliberately low and her movements are easy and unencumbered, add in the stillness/lack of measurable reaction from the rest of the cast and the entire moment feels too safe, too contained. We feel uncomfortable, yes, but not as much as we should.
Overall, Encounter is an ambitious attempt to translate an important Bengali short story, into a multi-layered performance piece. It is a welcome variation in the Vancouver performing arts landscape and one that, I am sure, generated several interesting discussions after the curtain fell. As the first production of what is to be an annual celebration of South Asian performing arts, it was a bold choice. I look forward to seeing what the 2018 line-up for Diwali in BC has to offer.
1 Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 'Draupadi by Mahasveta Devi' in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 2, Writing and Sexual Difference. (Winter, 1981), pp. 381-402.
Scheherazaad Cooper is an accomplished Canadian performer and choreographer, drawing from nearly thirty years as an Odissi classical Indian dancer, as well as a background in theatre, in her contemporary work. View bio.
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