Seema Mehta and Jason Samuels Smith
May 18, 2019
At the Festival Acces Asie
Organized by Festival Acces Asie and the Kabir Cultural Centre
Dressed in an elegant, flowing, white salwar-kameez with red-gold trimming, flowers in her braided hair, she dances gracefully in a circle paying homage to the Hindu god, Shiva. Then she enacts the tragic story of Madan and Rati, mythological characters equated with love and desire. The physical vocabulary of Kathak includes a range of emotions portrayed through facial expressions, which convey a great deal. Four musicians accompany her on the tabla, sitar, and harmonium, with song, and “bols”, sound syllables which are a way of keeping the beat and maintaining synchronicity.
A little later, the raw, urban energy of jazz guitar slams the stage, soon expanded by jazz piano. The music is live and even more so is the male, tap dancer with dreadlocks, clad in a black suit, who storms the stage, his movements sometimes chaotic, sometimes smooth, and always contemporary.
From ancient, Hindu myths and royal courts, romanticized bygone eras, we are in 20th century America. New York, smoky bars, restless street life, wailing sirens.
Rhythm Rewritten is an unusual collaboration between Indian Kathak dancer, Seema Mehta, and American Tap dancer, Jason Samuels Smith, that took place in Montreal on May 18, 2019. The show was also a collaboration between two Montreal arts organizations, Festival Accès Asie and the Kabir Cultural Centre.
Apart from the dance solos by Mehta and Smith, we were also treated to Indian music by highly accomplished musicians Satyaprakash Mishra on the tabla, Jayanta Banerjee on sitar, Debashish Sarkar, voice and harmonium and Joanna De Souza, a Toronto-based Kathak dancer, reciting the bols. Ian de Souza on bass, and Theo Hill on piano, round out the group.
I found myself holding my breath wondering how the seemingly disparate forms would work together. But work they did, taking me beyond my preconceived notions of what matches what. Smith was more directly responsive to the Indian musicians than Mehta was to the jazz. The friendly competition between Satyaprakash Mishra's tabla playing and Smith's spirited response was a joy to witness.
They danced solo, and then, of course, they danced together, to simultaneous music from both sets of musicians! More challenge, more boundary stretching, more success. Mehta and Smith were well attuned to each other and displayed chemistry. Their energy was playful, and the mood was improvisational.
Her art form permitted her to use her full body. Her facial gestures were part of a complex coded language that conveyed emotions and story. He focussed on his fast-moving feet and his body followed. Such magical feet — spinning, sometimes sliding/gliding, abruptly stopping! He is after all an Emmy Award winner and said to be one of the world's fastest Tap dancers.
Her bare, bell-clad feet and his tap dance shoes were additional musical instruments on that stage, which I later discovered had floor mikes.
The only quibble I had was the white, smoke cloud that was suspended for a little while, on the stage, when Mehta was dancing. It looked quite out of place.
The show brought home the fluidity and adaptability of Kathak, and Mehta took the mike from time to time to explain what was going on. In fact, informality and spontaneity were key elements that made the show sparkle. The idea of bringing Kathak and Tap together emerged in 2004 when Smith met Mehta’s guru, the renowned Chitresh Das, and they had a 10-year dance collaboration. At that time Mehta organized their India tours. When Das passed away, Mehta stepped in. Smith points out that these shows are very different from those.
"With Das we were always challenging each other, like two little kids; me and Seema stretch our artistry and try to see the range. These shows are also a bit more staged," he says.
"But it's still quite raw and its improv," counters Mehta. "As we go deeper, I realize that there is not really a specific way to prepare. Every show is a testament to what to do in the moment. Each one is different and that’s what keeps it exciting."
One way they do prepare and build trust is by spending time off stage, talking about just about everything.
"We try to bring some kind of a change through art expression, to talk about how different cultures can communicate and come together with a joyful feeling, and not be elitist about our art forms, not keep them separate, but bring them together without fusing them, and have a conversation," says Mehta.
That's why they consider it important to show their traditions separately first in Rhythm Rewritten.
"It’s really about conversation," Smith emphasizes when asked how they manage to collaborate across continents. "It's less practice, more talk about intentions and goals, and then we improvise."
"We find that the audiences have either seen Tap dance or Kathak, they have rarely seen both," says Mehta.
"We are exposing each other's audiences to each other's art form, and part of our job is to keep them visible, because they are not particularly popular right now. And show that they have a place in today's world, and they are not just something in the past. We keep the stories going," says Smith.
What are the challenges? Finding the balance, between sound, that is, Indian and Western music on stage. Balancing energy. But they’re always encouraged by the positive audience response. People thrive on the fun Smith and Mehta are clearly having on stage.
And the future? "We will go on till all of our hair turns grey," says Mehta.