The parameters of a good dance
Review of Kumbi Kathawa – performed by Chitrasena Kalayathanaya
I’ve always loved dancing. I’ve spent whole afternoons as a kid running around the garden in a leotard, hoping this exercise would magically turn me into a ballerina. I’ve grown up watching ballets both on stages around the world and on my parents’ beat up VCR. Dance movies from ‘The Dancing Princesses’ to ‘Dirty Dancing’ to ‘Step Up’ have kept me enthralled and not just a little green with envy.
Because, when you think about it, what’s not to love about dancing? The bodies are lithe and beautiful but muscles pulse and flex beneath smooth skin. The movements are so graceful but also so steady and strong. The expressions speak volumes but no words are uttered.
Admittedly I’m no expert when it comes to dance, least of all Kandyan dancing. But I am a firm believer that one of the most important functions of any art is to provoke an immediate reaction. So I don’t need to analyse every step to figure out if it’s a good dance or not. My measures are a little different; a little more visceral. I know it’s a good dance when my own body twists discreetly in my seat, in an involuntary echo of what’s happening onstage. I know it’s a good dance when I am almost afraid to blink for fear of missing a single movement, a single loaded glance. I know it’s a good dance when I am too wrapped up in the action to even clap when the stage vanishes into inky darkness. (In fact, I was only shaken out of my reverie when I heard a little voice behind me indignantly say “Ammi mata mukuth penne ne” (Mum, I can’t see anything!). I had to laugh.)
The story is a simple one – almost infantile in its fable-like moral of forgiveness and harmonious coexistence – but it was executed in an hour of such flawless rhythm, such colourful movement and animated expression, that it did not seem cliché at all.
One thing that really struck me was that from the youngest participant to the oldest, I didn’t see even one out of character, even for a minute. And this is saying something, because one could tell that the expressions of each individual were as carefully choreographed as the dancing itself. Every character was perfectly in sync with the other, not only in terms of choreography but also in terms of how they interacted with each other in each scene. And though I used the word ‘choreographed’ earlier, their expressions were truly believable. Happiness was unadulterated celebration. Pain was real, tangible pain.
In spite of an admirable cast of all different ages, the star of the performance was very clearly the villainous mosquito, played by Thaji. She had a multi faceted role in the performance, beginning the evening with an exquisitely graceful solo piece signifying rebirth, but her role in the narrative was what where she really shone. I have rarely seen such beautifully dramatic expressions, even in theatre. She danced in such a way that she very quickly ceased to be human. She became totally the creature she was meant to play: callous, selfish, wicked, dystopic, but alluringly beautiful nevertheless. The choreography also has to be given special mention, especially with this character: the movements were almost an antithesis to dance: jerky and contorting, conveying the personality of the creature perfectly.
The costumes transformed the stage into one that was always splashed with a palette of bright colours. Ants trundled along in vibrant orange, grasshoppers pranced about in bright green, drummer beetles thundered past in flamboyant red and butterflies flitted around silkily in purple and gold. As far as stage costumes went they were lavish and stylish – my personal favourite was the mosquito’s rag-tag mix of greys and blacks and also the seemingly star-spangled cloaks worn by the water nymphs.
Everything about my experience of this performance was immediate: I took a sharp inward breath as I heard the haunting opening music, I tapped along to the bouncing rhythm of the ants dance, I jumped when the mosquito lunged threateningly to chase them away, I smiled at the pint sized fireflies as they hopped skipped and jumped their way across the stage, I suppressed a giggle at the massive teapot and tea cups – all individual characters on their own – and most of all, when the final curtain swung closed, I felt rather deflated, and quite sorry it was over.
So in the end, I found that the best measure of the evening – that, like a child whose favourite bedtime story had come to an end, I wanted to start over and watch it once again.