Culture shock on the dance floor

Friday March 13 2009

Kathak dancer Jaya Pachauri from Rajasthan and Fernando Anuang’a, a Luo who has perfected a Maasai style of dance. Photo/COURTESY

Kathak dancer Jaya Pachauri from Rajasthan and Fernando Anuang’a, a Luo who has perfected a Maasai style of dance. Photo/COURTESY 

By BETTY CAPLAN

It was a rare occasion: Two groups who hardly ever meet up socially and culturally came in droves to see the Kathak dancer Jaya Pachauri from Rajasthan and Fernando Anuang’a, a Luo who has perfected a Maasai style of dance.

So popular was this performance at the Alliance Francaise on February 18 that it was repeated on March 4 to another equally ecstatic crowd.

I suspect that a dozen shows could well have been sold out.

Exquisitely feminine and demure, Ms Pachauri appeared dauntingly small and vulnerable beside her “Maasai warrior” — neither Maasai nor warrior but a very good dancer nevertheless — whose thinly clad body and stick contrasted with her full-length, gorgeous yellow and red costume.

A sexual tension immediately established itself between them — they circled one another, stared right into each others’ eyes, but would they dare to touch?

No, until the end when they whirled together using his “rungu,” still at a safe distance. For the rest, they remained very much in their own worlds.

Being an intelligent performance, developed during the Avignon Festival (France continues to encourage the best African dancers and musicians), this separateness was deliberate.

These are true professionals. Each is interested in his/her own art form. Maintaining this distance allows the audience to study them, observing minute differences in style and form.

Kathak concentrates on the body’s extremities: The footwork is fast and very precise and the many ankle bells render an added excitement to the spins. The ball of the foot, the heel and toe are all used separately to establish the beat.

Facial expressions are part of the dance, but the hand movements are not as intricate as they are in Bharatnatyam, for instance.

The word Kathak derives from “Katha,” meaning story. Themes from Persian and Urdu poetry sit alongside Hindu mythology.

This dance form traces its origins to the the nomadic bards of ancient northern India, known as Kathaks, or story tellers.

These bards, performing in village squares and temple courtyards, mostly specialised in recounting mythological and moral tales from the scriptures, and embellished their recitals with hand gestures and facial expressions. It was quintessential theatre, using instrumental and vocal music along with stylized gestures, to enliven the stories.

Kathak became a courtly entertainment with Persian and Muslim influences after the arrival of the Mughal emperors in North India, when its aesthetic aspect became more important than the religious.

Compared to the far more sensual Odissi, where the costume and poses emphasise the roundness of the woman’s body, in Kathak, the torso acts in one piece.

Normally musicians would be onstage echoing and drawing the dancer on, but the recorded music of both traditions was used to show that any sounds can be incorporated into the movements of creative artists.

In a brief explanation, Ms Pachauri demonstrated the way the rhythm of the drums is mimicked and amplified by the dancer’s stamping feet and jingling ankle bells.

Anuang’a is the exact opposite: In his case, the flexibility of the torso is crucial, and individual muscles are so highly developed that they can act on their own — to such an extent that the audience was moved to laughter.

Chest, shoulder, head are all utilised. The neck too, accustomed to stretching, can turn a necklace so fast that your vision becomes blurred.

Breath control is vital, so those stomach muscles have to be very strong ,there being, for the most part, no other musical accompaniment.

This is another thing that marks Maasai dance out from other African styles which use percussion. Dancer and musician are one.

The feet are flat and there is little preparatory bending of the knees for the famous jumps — known as “The Sky’s the Limit.” This is in marked contrast to classical ballet, which uses the leverage of the bent knee and the pointed foot to gain height.

Adapting the warrior style, Anuang’a adds long, lean stretches and movements from other tribal dances to vary his performance, which plays on the feeling of pride in the beauty and strength of masculinity.

It is true, after all, that male Maasais have gained their popularity in the public eye not least because of the attention they pay to their appearance — which is not mere decoration, of course, but has a shared meaning, a far cry from individualistic narcissism.

Perhaps most interesting of all were the reactions of the audience, titillated by curiosity but at the same time uncomfortable with the newness and unfamiliarity of the combination. There was laughter in odd and inappropriate places.

Indian dancers are renowned for the years of highly specialised training they undertake to learn their art.

Maasais know their dances from childhood as part of ceremonies, but Anuang’a has clearly been having professional dance training, probably contemporary, while in France.

My friend complained that this was once again trading the cliché that Kenya = Maasai = exotic, but the important thing for me was that the dance was good and the idea unusual and thought-provoking.

Bringing two communities together who do not often mix socially is in itself something of an achievement.

Perhaps it will have gone some way towards erasing the stereotype that all African dance is bum-wiggling that requires no skill. And the fallacy that India and Africa must forever remain apart because of their colonial past.

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