Visionary movement

Pub date September 28, 2010

DANCE Celine Schein, executive director of Chitresh Das Dance Company and its Chhandam School, was not born into Indian culture. But difficult Hindi words flow from her tongue with the ease of a native speaker. It’s a skill that should stand her in good stead during this weekend’s “Traditions Engaged: Dance, Drama, Rhythm,” which includes evening and daytime performances, lectures, panel discussions, and demonstrations of Indian classical dance.

Schein, a former ballet and modern dancer, has absorbed Indian dance into her very being. Yet it started almost by accident when she happened to fall into a Kathak class that classical dance master Pandit Chitresh Das was teaching at San Francisco State University. “I first loved the richness of its rhythms and movement patterns,” she recalls. “But then I was increasingly intrigued by [Das’] vision, even though it took me a long time to realize what exactly that was.”

Das is indeed a visionary. Committed to the rigor of exacting standards, he is also an innovator within the parameters of his art. He has, for instance, collaborated with tap virtuoso Jason Samuels Smith and Bharata Natyam dancer Mythili Kumar. His invention of Kathak yoga, which combines the two disciplines, is positively revolutionary. But other aspects of Das’ performances, like when he talks to the audience, are deeply traditional. “There is no fourth wall in Indian classical dance,” Schein explains. “Dancers interact with audiences and they are expected to respond. His own guru would comment during a performance, even criticize him.”

Indian classical dance gained a foothold in this country with the burgeoning interest in Eastern philosophy starting in the 1960’s, but grew stronger as Indian communities formed in Silicon Valley in the 1980s. Many families initially had little interest in Indian classical dance but wanted their children to grow up with the values it provided. Yet I once heard Das admonish the parents of his pupils that Kathak was a serious art, not just a spray-on for a young woman to look pretty on her wedding day.

A striving toward spirituality is deeply ingrained in Indian classical dance. Das’ mother told him “to dance from the gutter to the heaven.” He puts it into contemporary terms —the “vision” that so impressed Schein — by saying that dance allows you to become more yourself. Of course, none of this precludes enjoying Indian classical dance as a purely esthetic experience.

India has strong, highly diversified folkloric dance traditions, but “Traditions” focuses on classical dance forms: Bharata Natyam, originally a temple dance from southern India; Kathak, which blossomed at the Moslem Moghul courts of North India; Odissi, which was repressed by the British and revived after independence; Manipuri, a dramatic genre that deploys an expressive upper body; Kuchipudi, best known for a copper platter on whose rim the dancer performs; and Kathakali, which features spectacular masks and costumes. Also represented will be a new, recently recognized form, Gaudiya Bharati, from the Bengal region.

Unlike the scholar-oriented Kathak Festival in 2006, “Traditions” is solely devoted to practitioners. “We wanted to bring the best master artists together to talk about their work and perform — not just short snippets, but in depth,” Schein explains. Friday’s program will be focused on movement; Saturday’s on drama; and Sunday’s on rhythm. 



$25–$75 ($235–$295 for festival pass)

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787