Pallabi Chakravorty

Courtesans, pedestrians, and Bollywood between them
- Urmika Devi

November 6, 2010

Celluloid E-Motions, choreographed by Pallabi Chakravorty and performed by her Kathak ensemble, Courtyard Dancers, is packed with silent commentary on how dance viewership has evolved with time. The piece begins in the Asian Arts Initiative's art gallery, bordered on one side by floor length windows facing Vine Street, and on two other sides by the exhibit "Of Filmi Love And Other Demons" featuring paintings, mixed-media, and photography of the omnipresent influence of Bollywood cinema in contemporary pop culture. Flanked between two pillars and separated from the audience by only a few feet, the intimate setting suggests the performance tradition of dancers in the royal courts of a past era. To further pay homage to Kathak's history and the iconic romantic image of the courtesan dancer, two short Bollywood clips are played for the audience - black and white classics filled with nostalgia and deep emotion.

The video clips are interwoven with vibrant group choreography accompanied by poetry set to music ("ghazal"). Commendable performances in this area were given by Amelia Sinkin and Diditi Mitra, both of whom gracefully executed the distinctive pure dance features of Kathak: spoken syllables ("bols") and clapped out rhythms, rapid spins (known as "chakkars" or pirouettes on a flexed heel), phrases highlighting gaits and diagonals (referred to as "tukras"), and precise footwork demonstrating time-cycles and speed variations.

At other times, facial expression dominates as a narrative is communicated by the dancers. A particularly interesting scene features Pallabi Chakravorty and Shibani Patnaik, a guest artist performing in the Odissi form of classical Indian dance. Each dancer uses her own classical form to improvise the use of a woman's veil, a concept known as "ghunghat" in Kathak. The soft, lingering, hand gestures and delicate emotions of longing and desire were well portrayed by both dancers. It also provided the audience with a rare opportunity to see a side-by-side contrast of these forms, notably, their common vocabulary and the different techniques and choreographic approaches.

In another scene, classical Kathak is juxtaposed against the pumping beats of a Bollywood music score meshed with Bhangra and western HipHop, until it gives way to a filmi dance sequence. While filmi dance can often seem incongruous with larger works using classical movement, it was subtly done and representative of the "celluloid" movements and emotions of pop culture dance routines.

Amelia Sinkin, Tejal Mehta, Nicole Cox
Diditi Mitra and Amelia Sinkin
The structure of the piece shifts drastically as the audience is invited to leave the art gallery and enter the theater. As the audience leaves the warmly lit open space of the art gallery and is seated in the dimmed formal theater, a video plays on the screen, filmed by Nandini Sikand, who collaborated with the Courtyard Dancers in a daytime rehearsal in the art gallery. The audience hears the ambient sounds of Vine Street as the camera pans between startled pedestrians walking by the gallery, close-up shots of the dancers reflected in the window, and street views of the sidewalk and rooftops of neighboring Chinatown and Center City. These are the same spaces and movements witnessed by the audience in the last hour, now presented from a pedestrian perspective in the larger context of everyday activity, instead of the "here and now" of a formal dance performance.

This scene ends as Pallabi Chakravorty glides across the bottom of the screen, in partial shadow, repeating the same movements performed by the dancers onscreen. In a nice lighting effect, the video fades to leave her illuminated onstage for the final section of the work. Although well performed, the dark solo is intellectually demanding, forcing the audience to connect the dots between the dance, translated poetry, and physical journey from the art gallery, Bollywood clips, pedestrian video scenes, and formal theater. It may have been a deliberate disconnect, highlighting the emotions that are within each viewer as we interpret classical dance, music, and poetry from contemporary and sometimes "celluloid" perspectives.

Urmika Devi is a Philadelphia based choreographer, dancer and producer of classical Indian and contemporary dance. Her academic research interests are in music licensing, copyright, and organizational structures used in the performing arts. Urmika is also an attorney at Duane Morris, where she practices in the areas of immigration law, intellectual property and technology licensing.