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Austin Looks East for Devotion

Maraa Dance Theatre performance of Kavi

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Kavi is a new, evening length work by Maraa Dance Theatre presented at Café Dance in north Austin in June of 2014. The show is one of those delightful combinations, or fusions, of dance, both traditional and contemporary, music, poetry and literature. With all the mixing, the East Indian artistic esthetic remains strong and expressive, giving an evening’s satisfaction to all in attendance.

All the forms flowing together focus on the idea of devotion, or bhakti in the Hindu world. As artistic director Annelize Machado writes in her director’s notes: “Kavi is an exploration of devotion in it’s simplest form; it’s an homage to the poets and saints whose verses we are using; it’s the result of experimentation and simplification.”

The show as crafted is a series of devotional songs interspersed with dances. The songs, in at least three languages, are sung to traditional and contemporary music. The songs are all performed solo by Smt. Manasi Joshi-Singh, who brings her mastery to Café Dance and performs it with passion and skill. She gives us the first taste, in Kavi, of Hindu music and sung poetry for the 21st century.

The dances are choreographed and directed by Annelize Machado. Many, if not all, of the dances are inspired by Ms Machado’s recent journeys in India. She gained inspiration and drew on many sources for her choreographic ideas—poetry, nature, art, music, and the temple practices of bhakti devotees. Nowhere in the dances are the elements of fusion seen better than in “Sister, Give Me a Pot.” The dance contains an English spoken word voiceover giving lyrics that are restated in unison in the gesture language of Bharata Natyam, one form of Indian Classical dance. Here, concept and execution are superb. We see clearly the exact meaning of each gesture, without any resort to miming. There can be no better way to teach a language. Another high point is “Wanting Nothing in Return,” a slow-paced duet, formed partially from the positions of Hatha Yoga, or asanas. Many often wonder how the elegant and beautiful shapes of yoga may translate into dances, and we have an excellent example in this piece. Appreciative audiences will want to witness this dance again when Kavi returns, if ever.

Much of the current news out of south and southwest Asia is political and military and frightening. But the contemporary cultural arts of south Asia have a more enlightening and hopeful message to convey. Kavi is only one of many the West may keep and cherish. The East Indian/South Asian community in Austin is a vibrant cultural enclave willing to experiment boldly with historical forms, and the results continue to be surprising and spectacular. Austin’s Agni Entertainment went Bollywood one better last summer with their live performance Om Shanti, presented to huge crowds at the Long Center downtown. Groups such as Agni Entertainment and Maraa Dance Theatre push the pace of growth and change in our embracing Austin community. The Austin theatre and dance communities are urged to keep on their radar screens all similar groups focused on Asian arts. Altogether, forward-looking communities on several continents are driving Hindu civilization forward as a global guiding light for our common future.