Anyone looking for a simple answer to the question “What is South Asian dance?” would be overwhelmed by Tongues Untied, a sprawling showcase recently performed at Symphony Space. The event, clocking in at 3 hours 45 minutes, was presented by the arts and human rights organization Engendered, led by classical dancer, choreographer, and Executive Director Myna Mukherjee. Tongues Untied featured eleven acts—ranging from classical to folk and modern—from India and Pakistan.
The first set, “I Am,” opened with a solo by Bijli (Fayaaz), the popular Pakistani drag queen, performing a respectful Nautch folk homage to the Sufi mystic Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in which Fayaaz’s movements ranged from statuesque to supplicating. Next, Sumbhaav Dance Project’s threesome, wearing ghunghru (anklet bells), performed a Kathak allegory. Sumbhaav featured the evening’s standout dancer Rajiv Purohit, a kurta (tunic)-clad spinning dervish and master of expressive mudras (gestures). Then Kalanidhi Dance performed classical Kuchipudi movements, which include distinctive round- and flat-foot movements, in resplendent silken costumes including golden bracelets, belts, and anklet bells. Nighat Chaodhry’s Kathak-based Purdah was a reflection on a woman’s place in Islamic society. In cerebral whiplash contrast, UBC Girlz Bhangra Team, a purple-and-blue-sequined pimp-my-ride merry-go-round of low-rider energy, brought the set to a rousing close as the Girlz romped and stomped around the stage as if, indeed, they “owned” it.
“Between Worlds – East/West Desired,” the second set, opened with Tehreema Mitha performing a ritualistic dance of bereavement in a contemporized version of the Bharatanatyam (expression-music-rhythm dance) form, accompanied by hypnotic violin (Dr. Imdad Hussain), banjo, and tabla. In surprisingly smooth segue, Seeta Patel and Kamala Devam merged club and classical dance, taking movement and gesture to a whole new place in discordant non-duet. Two screen-based pieces followed: Omar Rahim’s haunting videography in Dreams of my father’s father’s father and Mandeep Raikhy and Phil Sanger’s The Ghost Ship, a human/computer collaborative interpretation of Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse. Then Flexy Studio’s smart and upbeat Hip-Hop love triangle.
The third set, “The Spiritual and the Sensual,” was performed by the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, a company of female dancers in classical costumes like those of Kalanidhi. Nrityagram performed three Odissi pieces—Pratima (Image), Vibhakta (Division) and Aarati (Offering of Light). This form incorporates the tribhangi (three part division) position—the uniquely recognizable s-shaped pose with distinctive movements of head, chest, and hips. Within this stylized convention, the dancers seamlessly swam synchronically through space, struck symbolic poses, dissolved and recombined.
The duration of Tongues Untied was exhausting; the mind’s accommodative bucket overflowed. Engendered’s good intentions—to present the broadest possible spectrum of South Asian dance (four of the eight classical Indian dance forms were demonstrated), met the reality of the limits of sedentary attention. Better to split the event into two programs. That done, Engendered’s talented companies of dancers could enchant us twice as much in the mystical language of dance.