East West Players is opening its 47th season with something different — an Encounter fromÂ Massachusetts-basded Indian dance company,Â Navarasa Dance Theater.
“Encounter can be different full-length performances at different times,” explains Dr. Aparna Sindhoor, artistic director of Navarasa. “The initial idea was to look at different encounters: encounter with the divine, encounter with gravity, encounter with Bob Marley — I was attracted to his reggae music, especially the song ‘No Woman, No Cry’. Â The final main production is encounter with the military, and that’s what we’re going to perform here with East West Players.”
The production is inspired by the short story, “Draupadi”, by award-winning Indian writer Mahasweta Devi, says Anil Natyaveda, co-director of Navarasa. Devi received a Magsaysay Award, which has been called the Asian version of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
“She’s a very well-known Indian writer,” adds Sindhoor, “Her stories are about the indigenous communities, about women. And a lot of her stories are based on true incidents, although she may create characters to develop the story.Â Â In that sense she writes about people that she works with. It’s not like she observes from afar.Â She’s involved in the story in some way or another.Â So that’s why her writing is very direct and to the point.Â There’s no waste of words.”
“Our play is about the indigenous people’s struggle against military occupation,” continues Sindhoor. “It’s powerful and dramatic but there is some comedy.” The story revolves around a woman named Dopdi and her community’s struggle for food and water, as well as for freedom.
“We used the idea of the story,” says Natyaveda, “then created more characters and scenes.Â We use different theater and dance forms including martial arts called kalarippyattu.Â We made our own vocabulary using different styles.”
“The other Encounters are more dance-based,” says Sindhoor, “with a lot of movement and music. Â This performance is contemporary because the struggle continues.Â So we have scenes performed in English along with music, songs and dance.”
“And there’s a rope aerial performance around a 10-foot pole,” adds Natyaveda. “We did this show at the university I graduated from, Sri Swathi Thirunal Music College in Triuvanathapuram. They appreciated our new way of doing theater.”
Because Encounter shows the struggle of an indigenous people, it often resonates with Native American populations.Â “We were performing in Montreal,” says Sindhoor, “and there were a lot of First Nations people who happened to come in a group, and after the show they said “˜Oh my God, this is our story, how did you get it?Â Where did you find it?’Â I was really moved by that because we really didn’t include any of the Native American names or legends and yet they got it.Â Â Then after that we further developed that connection.”
Encounter is approximately 75 minutes long and is performed without an intermission. Of the six performers who travel with the show, two are visiting America, from India, for the first time.
Navarasa Dance Theater has been based in Massachusetts since 1996, but it was founded in the southwestern Indian city of Mysore in 1991 by Sindhoor along with her husband, the Indian film director S M Raju, and fellow choreographer Anil Natyaveda — at first with the name Navarasa Natyalaya. “Anil and I met on a film shoot,” says Sindhoor, “We were both choreographing for a South Indian film, to different songs and we bumped into each other during one schedule and we’ve been working together since.” Raju supplies the theatrical narratives for many of the productions.
The company has toured in North America, Europe and India.
Most performance companies in India are devoted either to classical dance or they’re straight theater companies that occasionally do western drama, such as Shakespeare and Brecht, in the Indian languages.Â But Navarasa combines different styles of dance, dialogue, scenes, music, songs, martial arts and other theatrical disciplines.
“I trained as a classical dancer in Mysore Bharatanatyam,” says Sindhoor. Bharatanatyam is one of the oldest dance forms of India.Â Within this discipline are regional forms. Mysore is one of them. It’s similar to ballet as a discipline where there is the Kirov style or Balanchine style. Sindhoor is a gold medalist in dance from Mysore University.
“So you go to class every day,” Sindhoor continues, “and the training is very intense, and yet even then I was doing theater on the side and had been performing theater from the time I was a little girl.”
Sindhoor’sÂ mother ran a theater company for children called Chigaru. “My mother was part of the feminist movement in my home town of Mysore.”
“When I became a solo performer in classical dance, I felt I was doing something that I didn’t totally believe in.Â My father said “˜if you’re so angry about it, why don’t you make your own dance. Why just reproduce existing dance?’Â So that’s how I started making my own productions.Â Then Anil came into the company, and he had the same vision for his dance and so we blended our visions.”
Sindhoor later obtained a PhD in dance, cultural and women’s studies from Boston University. Â She is performing in this current production.
“We are very grateful to Tim Dang and East West Players,” says Natyaveda, “for contacting us when we performed at the Asian American Festival here in Los Angeles and for believing in us.”
“We hope this Encounter that audiences will have,” concludes Natyaveda, “will touch their hearts.Â I think it will stay with them for a very long time.”
“Sometimes I just feel like we try to be honest with our form and content,” adds Sindhoor, “and try to show the truth so to speak.Â And if people are moved by it and continue talking about how we touched them beyond just our performance, and share how it affected them, then that would make me very happy.”
“There is universality to our message,” Sindhoor continues.Â “Encounter is not something that resonates with East Indians only. Even though we may speak with an accent, audiences connect immediately.Â We’ve performed in rural areas of India and at Lincoln Center in New York City, and both audiences totally got the show.Â It really makes me happy that our performance is beyond language, and gestures, that it’s gone to a level that is human to human.”
Encounter, David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St. Los Angeles 90012.Â Opens Wednesday. Wed”“Sun 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through Oct. 7. Tickets: $26 – $36. 213-625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.org.
***All Encounter production photos by Michael Lamont