Ignore The Title, Come For The Exuberance

I usually don’t speak specifically about the performers we present for a number of reasons. Among them is my concern that inclusion or omission will make a tacit statement about the quality of the performance or my interactions with the group. The last event we had was so superlative and the positive feedback so strong that I feel the need to single it out by name for what I believe is the first time in my blog’s history.

The performance in question is the India Jazz Suites. The baggage that name brings with it is part of the reason I felt the need to wax rhapsodic about the performance. It needs all the help it can get to overcome the assumptions people make based on the name. While it does have Indian and Jazz elements, the show’s focus is really on the joyful exuberance exhibited by Indian kathak exponent Pandit Chitresh Das and tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith. The problems people seemed to have with the show name is akin to if you had never experienced opera. You would have just as much insight into the nature of Loony Tunes’ “What’s Opera, Doc?” were it billed “Animated Opera Short.”

In promoting the piece, I kept emphasizing the idea of a partnership infused with “joyful exuberance.” Even if people didn’t know anything about kathak and weren’t too big on jazz, I hoped the concept of dancers from two different traditions having fun would make them curious enough to get more information. Jason and Chitresh met backstage at the American Dance Festival in 2004 and became interested in working with one another. Kathak is similar to tap in that it is a percussive dance form performed barefoot with about 10 lbs of bells attached to the ankles. Like tap it lends itself to dramatic flourishes. Pandit Das speaks in interviews of his long desire to work with Gregory Hines, lost upon Hines death, was renewed upon meeting Jason Samuels Smith. The two perform with two trios of musicians. One trio on tabla, sitar and sarangi; the other on piano, drums and bass. The musicians challenge each dancer to match different riffs and the dancers engage in a dance battle to match each other.

But as you can see, unless you already had a sense of the show’s content, it takes a bit of explanation to get people to a place where they understand what the performance will be about. We worked hard on press releases, radio interviews and in media ad buys to communicate all this. I don’t use a lot of unwarranted hyperbole in my ads and releases so I hoped when I emailed our subscription list in earnest that this was the show I had was most excited about and had waited all season to see, they would trust that I sincerely meant it. It was absolutely true. As soon as one of my consortium partners proposed the show, I jumped on it afraid that one of the others in the city would first.

One of my reasons for wanting to host the show was that there was little chance of seeing a collaboration like this, much less with artists of this caliber. Unfortunately, this being absolutely true, people had few frames of references to help them comprehend the performance in advance. People with whom we discussed the performance at length on multiple occasions were having “ah-ha” moments just days before the show about details we mentioned many times before.

What I think explained the show best is this YouTube video of excerpts from the performance:

As you might surmise, the audience wasn’t that large but the show superb. It was easily in the top three performances of the past five years. I can’t help but wonder if the entertainment sector as a whole has poisoned its relations with audiences by diluting language by over promising. I place a lot of the blame on movie ads but pretty much every discipline and area is guilty of employing hyperbolic language. Now when we have an offering which is challenging to understand on the surface but easily enjoyable by the layman without benefit of specialized knowledge, we can’t simply say trust me, you will enjoy it immensely and have people believe you. Even with lengthy explanations, interviews and multimedia support, people are risk averse partially because they have been disappointed by previous promises.

I have no experience with jazz or Indian dance. I jumped on the opportunity because I knew by reputation alone that Chitresh Das was worth seeing. It wasn’t until I watched the YouTube video weeks later that I realized not only did I want to see it, it was intellectually accessible to a very broad audience.

The show started with Smith and Das doing separate solos. One of the points they make is that neither is scaling back his art to accommodate the other. They are both highly accomplished artists. In the first half of the show they make that abundantly clear. To be fair, the musicians make that clear about themselves before the dancers step on the stage. Given that jazz, tap, classical Indian music and dance are all heavily improvised forms, the musicians have to be extremely skilled to operate at the level of the dancers.

As I stood watching, I started thinking that the audience was paying far too little to see this performance. I know that had we charged more we would have likely had fewer people so it was good that a greater number of people were able to experience the performance. Still they were getting a hell of a lot of value for their money.

People realized this. Well, perhaps not the money part, though someone did ask how they could donate. The atmosphere in the lobby at intermission was completely energized. We were half way through the show and people were responding at the same level they did at the end of a performance after a big finale. I was engaged in conversations by multiple people who were somewhat at a loss to express their excitement. I had to keep excusing myself as I was continually intercepted on my way backstage to make sure the second half would be starting shortly.

The second half absolutely delivered on the promise made in the first half that the talents of both men together would be greater than the sum of the parts. The interactions between the two dancers and the way they engaged the musicians was exceptional. Everything intertwined so well I forgot that it wasn’t all choreographed in advance.

Lest you imagine that the show had fallen into rote after repeated performances constituting a de facto choreography , it was only supposed to run 1.5 hours and ran 2.5. And no one cared to complain. I hadn’t realized things had expanded until I noticed intermission was getting over when the show was scheduled to end. I think part of it was due to Pandit Das, considers himself as an educator as much a dancer. He did some demonstrations and discussion of the principles behind his art during his solo. I assume seeing people were entranced, he was happy to keep dancing for them.

This week has seen me copied on emails people are sending their friends raving about the performance they attended. When I am stopped on the sidewalk by people, the conversation runs longer than usual about what a wonderful show we brought the previous weekend. I will openly admit that I am contributing much more to the exchange myself.

Again, none of this is meant to detract from any of the other artists we have presented. I think the last two shows of the season went a very long way in creating very positive impressions about our theatre in the community. I suspect that will be worth a lot to us as economic times become more difficult.

So, you know, I can’t help wishing there were more people participating in the experience.

Perhaps some reading this account won’t quite understand my excitement having seen the like often enough. It isn’t all that frequent that someone operating in my budget range gets to present performances of this caliber. So I guess it would only go to prove my point that people weren’t paying enough to see the performance which makes me all the more grateful that we had the opportunity. But even for those accustomed to experiencing exceptional performances, there is always a show that transcends your past experiences to a great degree and provides a “Wow” moment.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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