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Three Exceptional Performances at DTLA's Grand Performances

by Joanne Zimbler
September 13, 2014
California Plaza
350 S. Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90071
(213) 687.2190
There's no dearth of free live outdoor summer performances in Los Angeles but most of them feature strictly music. Grand Performances in DTLA's California Plaza however distinctly caters to all art lovers by showcasing a variety of art forms, and like several other auspicious weekends this summer, this past weekend's menu was all about dance dance dance. And the potent fare at this particularly cerebral performance offered plenty of food for thought with three company's/choreographers' accessible yet stimulating modern dance performances.

Sheetal Gandhi's solo performance of "Bahu-Beti-Biwi," or Daughter-in Law, Daughter, Wife weaved a message about women's subjugation, a historical yet contemporary theme which Gandhi appropriately conveys through both ancient and modern dance forms, seamlessly creating a melange of dance, vocalizations, text and humor. Using her range of disciplines, Gandhi gives voice to the women from whom it has been stripped. By beginning the piece with Kathak, an Indian, rhythmic, percussive, style of dance, replete with vocalizations, Gandhi immediately reclaims her lost voice. The word Kathak refers to storytelling and Gandhi indeed has many stories to tell. Soon she is moving languidly in a sari, beseechingly singing over a tabla and asking why. As she stripped out of the sari to reveal a racier outfit she also revealed that her full question is "why can't I wear a tank top", effectively employing her pastiche style to both poignant and humorous effect.

Next Gandhi created a powerful image by rewrapping herself in the sari, now on her head to become an old Indian grandmother reproving a granddaughter for her intractable modern ways. The granddaughter is rebuked for things including wearing tank tops, her sartorial choices for visits to the Safeway, and her modern desire to marry "for love". This however soon leads the grandmother into wistful memories of her own young love which predated her inevitable arranged marriage, as she changes into a shimmering red dress and begins to move in a decidedly modern and sumptuous dance. Her cold dogmatic espousals yield to nostalgia and memories of love and the self-determined girl she once was. Gandhi's piece honors the girls who came before and after. Gandhi is all women, through her art releasing them from the constraints which kept them mute, the patriarchy which kept them shackled.

Gandhi's performance was followed by "Wife's The Grey Ones," tackling the even more ambitious theme of the beginning of time. Technology is often indicted for it's tendency to thwart our humanity, to supplant our uniqueness with algorithms and sterile code. Paradoxically, in the right hands, technology also has a way of revealing something deeply human, primordial, mystical even, and this it does in Wife's sensational visceral piece which the artists incisively describe as "an all sensory theatrical experience." Three women stand on three large separate cubes as 3D projection mapping is beamed onto their moving bodies, apt tableaus for a story of creation. Dressed like some kind of goddess brides, they are haunting Jungian dreams of beauty and terror. The images projected are sensual, eerie, gorgeous, geometrical, at once indescribably beautiful and agonizingly frightening, testifying to the creation of a universe. Amon Tobin's accompanying music is used to a devastating effect, capturing the simultaneously elegant and horrific nature of being.

The night's themes culminated with Rosanna Gamson's offering - a piece reiterating Gandhi's feminist message and Wife's marriage of terror and beauty. Terror and beauty are salient aspects of Scherezade, the ancient story on which Gamson's Layla Means Night is based. The storyteller of the night, a young dancer also dressed as a bride, begins the performance by announcing that she is Rosanna Gamson and she has a story to tell; Gamson, like Gandhi is every woman and this is many stories, a metanarrative of the universality of women's suffering, of communication and miscommunication, and the great historical divide between men and women - but mostly of the power of story to bridge these chasms.

By beginning the piece behind a white curtain, through which only silhouettes are visible, Gamson challenges us to question our notion of perception and thus truth, a motif later repeated when the men of the audience are blindfolded. The threat of violence endemic to Scheherazade is present here as the narrator reminds us that all theater leaves performers vulnerable to attack from the audience. One diminutive dancer embodies this violence by wielding a cleaver that she hacks oranges with at the front of the stage. Violence and it's implications are immutable facts of life and we are reminded throughout the performance that they are also inextricably linked to eroticism. The duality, Eros and Thanatos, are embodied in the dancers' seductive movements and red throats, the result of a loss of virginity and the subsequent violence from the king who beheaded them in the story of Scheherazade.

In their sisterhood of the dead, the dancers clad in coquettish red dresses, their cut throats prominent, swirl and seethe, seductive yet vengeful, women who will not be ignored, who dance on the periphery, haunting us until we reconcile them with our history, our stories. Their gothic dance refuses boundaries and as such the dancers take to the audience slithering enchantingly around the blindfolded male audience members, ethereal remnants of a life undone by violence but who will no longer be marginalized. As the narrator exclaims, "inside every story is a shadow story". The king lavishly dances pas de deuxs, smokes, feasts, confident that the story is his, that he is in control. But is he? The narrator reminds us that we cannot stop her story without ending us all. Because of course, there is only one story.

Joan Didion said, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live". Without them, who are we? Do we know? To rob one of story is to submerge a person's, or community's or culture's reality. The evenings three performances reminded us of the power of story to create and annihilate, but also recreate and therefore bridge ancient chasms. Text and language are useful tools for uniting but it is music and dance that transcend language and text and connect us in an ancient ceremony to the story that began long before us.
Sheetal Gandhi in 'Bahu-Beti-Biwi

Sheetal Gandhi in "Bahu-Beti-Biwi

Photo © & courtesy of Heather Cantwell

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