Leela dance

Leela Dance, a dance collective bringing together leading Kathak artists, will be presenting two dance performances in Calif.: “Speak: A Kathak and Tap Collaboration” March 24-25 in San Francisco; and “Son of the Wind” April 8 in Rohnert Park. Seen here are tap star Michelle Dorrance and Kathak dancer Rina Mehta. (Margo Moritz photo)

Much to the delight of dance connoisseurs, two dance forms, Indian classical dance Kathak and American tap dance, will unite March 24-25 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Calif., during “Speak: A Kathak and Tap Collaboration” presented by Leela Dance, a dance collective bringing together today’s leading Kathak artists.

April 8 will see the premiere of another dance program, “Son of the Wind,” at the Green Music Center in Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif.

“Speak,” comprising of only female artists, marks the debut of the Leela Dance Collective, which Indian American dancers Rachna Nivas and Rina Mehta founded with other senior disciples of legendary Kathak maestro Pt. Chitresh Das, after he passed away, to move forward his legacy and the rich art form of Kathak. 

The Leela Dance Collective, Nivas said, is a “home for those artists seeking to develop their individual creative voice while working collaboratively to forward a collective vision for Kathak dance.”

Continuing the legacy Pt. Chitresh Das started with tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith, Leela Dance is sustaining and deepening that relationship with the production of “Speak.”

Kathak dancers Nivas and Mehta, along with tap dancers Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards of Tony Award-winning “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk” musical, and Michelle Dorrance, founder and artistic director of New York-based Dorrance Dance, come together in this collaboration that is rhythm, poetry, storytelling, music, and dance.  Music composition is by sitarist Jayanta Banerjee and drummer Allison Miller.

Named after the Sanskrit word that loosely translates to “play,” Leela is the spontaneous, joyful creativity that comes from being in a pure state of bliss, according to Mehta.

“This is the foundation of all Indian classical music and dance – improvisation,” she said. “As Indian classical dance and music has struggled to evolve and reinvent itself in the face of a changing world and changing audiences, this core principle of the art has often been thrown aside and the art form has gone towards choreography and high-end production. At Leela we are committed to sustaining this sense of joy and play that is central to the art form.”

“Speak” will be staged at 8:00 p.m. March 24 and at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. March 25.

In contrast to “Speak,” which highlights how Kathak as an art form can evolve to reach beyond its own expression and build bridges across age, race, religion and nationality, said the founders, “Son of the Wind” takes the art form deep within itself and highlights its original expressive form – that of storytelling.

“Son of the Wind,” a classic, tour-de-force Kathak dance drama, which is centered around the adventures of Hanuman, the Hindu god who proved to be a central force in the timeless and universal battle between good and evil in the Indian epic Ramayana, will be performed April 8 at 7:30 p.m.

The show integrates dance, music, theater, poetry, and mime into one. “Son of the Wind” is directed by Pandit Chitresh Das’ senior disciples Seibi Lee, Nivas and Mehta. The show features an original score along with an ensemble featuring some of India’s finest musical artists.

This dance drama, too, features a cast of all female Kathak dancers.

“Audiences want us to be pretty women spinning in pretty costumes. This is accessible. And as Kathak dancers we want to be accessible,” said Mehta. “We are after all performing an ancient Indian dance form in modern day America. We believe that we can have integrity, remain true to our artistic and cultural heritage, be authentic artists and be accessible. We have chosen to be warriors, monkeys, demons instead of pretty women in pretty costumes. We have chosen to be artists.”

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