A Word With SPEAK’s Rachna Nivas and Rina Mehta

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SPEAK, a powerful all-female Indian Kathak and American tap dance collaboration, will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 14, at the University of Hawaii at Hilo Performing Arts Center, and at the Kahilu Theatre on Sunday, Feb. 16, at 2 p.m. Ticket info below.

SPEAK features two of the world’s leading Kathak dancers, Rachna Nivas and Rina Mehta. Nivas is a leading artist, activist, and educator in Indian classical dance, bringing a relevant voice to Kathak. She is a founding artist of the Leela Dance Collective and previously was a principal dancer with the Chitresh Das Dance Company for 15 years. Mehta has been described as “regal” and “brilliant” by critics, as she brings a singular voice and vision to the art form of Kathak. Mehta currently is the Artistic Director of the Leela Academy in Los Angeles where she trains the next generation of dancers and educators. I recently had the pleasure of a phone interview with both of them.

Where did the inspiration come from an all-female Indian Kathak and American Tap Dance production, and has a similar collaboration ever been done before?
Nivas: Our teacher/guru Pandit Chitresh Das did a show with Jason Samuels Schmidt, a New York-based tap dancer, and that show was called India Jazz Suites. They had performed that show in Hawaii about ten years ago. At the time, our teacher was a 62-year-old Indian guru, and Jason was this 23-year-old hoofer from Hell’s Kitchen, New York. An unlikely pairing, but they found a very immediate kinship because of their love for rhythm and approach to their art forms. Both Rina and I were involved in the making of this collaboration, brought in very early to be a part of the show. In 2013, we started to talk about creating the next chapter of this coming together and letting the ladies have a voice in our interpretation.

Can you talk about the musical side of the show where you combine Indian classical and American jazz musicians who work in different time signatures? Was that a challenge?
Mehta: It was as challenging and as similar to how the two dance forms come together. When the dancers and the musicians came together it was very organic. Instead of approaching the collaboration from the perspective of an intellectual exercise, we just moved with the musicians as they played. Our sitar artist Jayanta Banerjee doesn’t speak very fluent English, but most of the music composition process was done without any words – he would play, and pianist Carmen Staaf would respond. That process ties in with the title of the production as well, SPEAK. We found that speaking through our art forms, whether in dance, music, or rhythm, is incredibly effective in transcending, overcoming and bridging differences. Because when you’re speaking through rhythm and music and dance, you don’t notice the differences. What you perceive most of all is kinship, oneness, and connection.

In your press release, you say SPEAK is “a statement for how we can be global citizens of this world.” Can you talk more about that?
Nivas: First of all, we don’t call this a fusion, we very deliberately call it a collaboration because neither of us is trying to change each other and we’re not taking things from each other’s art form. What we take great pride in is that we consider ourselves to be purists. This show takes us even deeper into our forms while also pushing our boundaries. And that, to us, is a beautiful metaphor for what multiculturalism and globalization should be about. It shouldn’t be about one dominating the other or anybody trying to assimilate to the other either, but rather that we each stand in our traditions and embrace each other’s differences. We seek commonalities and common ground. That’s what the show is about, and what the world should be moving towards as well.

What would you like people to take away after experiencing SPEAK in performance?
Mehta: One of the biggest compliments we’ve received is that there are moments in the show where people forget that these are different art forms because they experience it as complete oneness. For me, the message that I would like people to walk away with is that when you have joy and exhilaration, those things transcend difference. Also, at the heart of Indian classical dance and music, and tap and jazz, is improvisation, so, what improvisation allows for is a spirit of play. It’s playful. And those things are a real universal joy. Play, dance, and music allow us to access these things quickly. I’m a very serious person. I have a hard time having fun and being joyful. But if you get me on the dance floor, I’m right there. We want to give people a sense of how powerful music and dance are.

Is there anything else you’d like to add before we go?
Nivas: Just that this is an all-female conceived, created and choreographed show. So, from our perspective, we wanted to bring in choreography and that artistic element to both forms. You don’t see a lot of choreography in tap, and 95 percent of this effort is being improvised. But these ladies are also great choreographers in their own right as well. So, we wanted to bring that element into the show.

Mehta: We’re very excited to be bringing the show to the Hawaiian Islands. We know the islands have such a rich culture of dance and music, and so for us to connect to that culture and community is exciting

If you go… Have a good show!

SPEAK will be performed at two different Big Island venues. On Friday, Feb. 14, at 7:30 p.m., at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo Performing Arts Center. Tickets are Pre-sale: $30 General; $25 Discount; & $15 UHH/HCC Students with valid ID, and Children 17 & under – $5 more at the door. For more information, please call 932-7490.

On Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, at 2 p.m., SPEAK will be performed at the Kahilu Theatre in Waimea. Tickets ($65/$35) can be purchased at kahilutheatre.org, (808) 885-6868 or at the Kahilu Theatre Box Office located at 67-1186 Lindsey Road, in Waimea.


Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

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