Review: SPEAK Connects the Dots Between East & West with Global Message

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SPEAK, by far, was one of the most captivating dance events I’ve witnessed at the Kahilu Theatre. Like viewing art at a museum, there’s no spoken word introduction for what you are experiencing, but after the thrilling 90-minute show concludes, it’s easy to see (and hear) how Eastern and Western dance and music styles can work well together, and perhaps there’s a global message of unity as a takeaway.

SPEAK is the next chapter of a performance called India Jazz Suites. In an interview I did a few weeks ago with Kathak dancers Rachna Nivas and Rina Mehta, they explained how the unlikely pairing of an Indian Kathak master and a star New York tap dancer found a kinship because of their love for rhythm and different art forms. Seven years ago, Nivas and Mehta were brought in to be part of India Jazz Suites, and have now created SPEAK, “letting the ladies have a voice in our interpretation,” as Nivas described the new show.

Pianist Carmen Staaf

Last Sunday’s performance at the Kahilu Theatre offered an unusual layout for the four dancers and six musicians. The theatre’s tech staff assembled a roughly 30’ x 30’ plywood dance floor and sprinkled a little sand to aid the tappers. On stage left, in descending order, were the jazz musicians: Austin McMahon (drums), Tabari Lake (upright acoustic bass), and Carmen Staaf (piano). On stage right, and directly facing their counterparts, were the classical Hindustani ensemble: Satyaprakash Mishra (tabla), Jayanta Banerjee (sitar), and Debashis Sarkar (vocals/harmonium). For certain numbers, and not directly visible to the audience, gobo lights projected ocean wave patterns to the floor under the dancer’s feet. From my vantage point in the theater’s rafters, as the dancers’ silk dresses twirled, it gave the impression that they were dancing/floating on a sea of air.

Speak’s all-female cast featured two Kathak dancers (Rachna Nivas and Rina Mehta), and two tap dancers (Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Josette Wiggan-Freund).  The performance offered three acts, with the second act the longest with four segments. The Kathak dancers were barefoot with bells attached to their ankles, while the American tappers wore (my guess) Bloch shoes – a brand created exclusively by choreographer Jason Samuels Smith, co-founder of India Jazz Suites. All dancers had wireless mics strapped to their ankles so the audience could fully appreciate the percussion aspect of their feet hitting the hard surface.

Each of the show’s eight segments was completely different and offered a variety of Kathak, tap, or a combination of the two dance styles. There was an element of spoken poetry involved a piece titled Kirwani. As mentioned in the program, it’s a deeper exploration of the relationship between the two art forms. The tap dancers used “tap vocabulary” to interpret the rhythms played on the tabla. There were occasions, too, where the dancers did something like slam poetry with their voices, a rhythmic call-and-response, and at times, Sarkar filled in too.*

In the segment called Chalan, the dance element was completely removed, and in an East-meets-West collaboration, each player traded off solos. Chalan means “gait,” referring to the way in which the rhythm and melody move and create motion. This was the only part of the show where the audience was visually at a disadvantage. Since the musicians were stacked alongside each other, dimly lit, and on opposite sides of the stage, you couldn’t see their faces as they looked up for cues for when to come in. The highlight of the piece was when Mishra (tablas) and McMahon (drums) dueled solos. As I stood behind McMahon’s drum kit, I could see Mishra’s face and hand gestures toward him. To me, it looked like he was playfully giving the drummer some smack. With both hands up, Mishra gave an expression that said, “Is that all you got?” Bare hands blazing, Mishra fired away on the tablas. Eventually, the two synced solos and wrapped it up nicely. After the show, I asked McMahon if Mishra was really throwing him some shade and egging him on, but he denied it and the two had the utmost respect for each other. Perhaps if the show was done in a theatre-in-the-round setting, the audience could get a better appreciation of the unusual grouping of musical instruments and musicians.

For the finale, Sam Yug, the full cast of dancers, and musicians came together for a spectacular ending to this impressive performance. Spinning, dresses twirling, hoofs pounding and filling all four corners of the dance floor, the segment has been described as “mirroring the ebbs and flows of life” while juxtaposing rhythms of 7 and 9 on a 16-beat cycle – don’t try this at home, Kids, without adult supervision.

SPEAK cast members received leis from the Kahilu Theater

We have a lot to be grateful for that a performance of this caliber made it to our remote island in the Pacific Ocean. Bravo to the Leela Dance Collective, the dancers/choreographers, the talented musicians, the Kahilu Theatre, and the Performing Art Presenters of Hawaii who offered SPEAK on a statewide tour. Thanks for filling our lives with a delightful multi-cultural joyride.


*For clarification, Rachna Nivas responded: “These syllables are the language of the dance – whatever we recite, we replicate with our feet, bodies, and facial expressions.  It’s not an actual linguistic language. There was a song that the Indian singer sang during the finale which was in Sanskrit.” 


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.

Photos: Steve Roby

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