The curtain rustles, and the bard himself – Shakespeare, rushes onto the stage, fretting about getting ready for the upcoming play. The Queen has commissioned a play set to the Bharatanatyam dance form and he has no clue how to do it. But, apparently, the great town of Hillsboro is home to many Indians and a dance school there has saved the day. A boy walks in with a cell phone and Shakespeare admonishes him for talking to a “box,” and asks him to get on with his duties. This introduction (played brilliantly by Actor G.Scott Brown) sets the tone for the production of Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Anjali School of Dance.
Past and present intermingle with dance and theater. Shakespeare’s characters interact with ancient Indian kings and queens. Western classical music, Bollywood and hip-hop mingle to create a colorful tapestry of visual pleasure. Even the traditional invocation of Divine blessings is skillfully woven into the first act. The play is brought together with “Shakespeare” introducing the scenes. Best of all, the atmosphere is casual – the performers ranging in age from elementary school kids to adults are there to clearly enjoy themselves. And if the “Making of Midsummer Night’s dream” video – Call Me Maybe, is any indication the young performers are quite self-reliant with all the back-stage work and their creativity is infused with a quirky sense of humor.
I cannot claim to be a connoisseur of Bharatanatyam. My first exposure to the dance form was a performance by the legendary Kamala Lakshman. When I was a little kid, the Arangetram of the daughter of a family friend (the now famous Chitra Visweswaran) inspired me to take few classes in the artistic city of Calcutta. But my interests moved on to other directions, not the least of which is theater. Both my kids were regulars at the Northwest Children’s Theater and participated in high school plays and reproductions of Broadway musicals. An annual family ritual is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where a few years ago a Sanskrit play “Mrichakattika” – The Clay Cart, directed by Bill Rauch was performed in Ashland. Eastern music with English lyrics, kathak dance routines and Brechtian theater techniques were combined to create a critically acclaimed play seen by thousands of visitors. I can’t comment on the technical details of the dance routines in Anjali’s “Midsummer Night” but I know good theater when I see it.
Artistic Director Anita Menon says her motivation for doing these grand dance extravaganzas with Western themes is to keep Indian Classical Dance relevant to kids of today and I think she succeeded in spades with this show. What surprised me though was to see Shakespeare actually enhanced by the hand gestures, eye movements, facial expressions and other typical elements of Bharatanatyam. I think the Anjali School is on to something here! Due to an unforeseen transfer to three different schools in India, I wound up studying the Merchant of Venice three times in a row until I knew the play by heart, but with most other plays I need to resort to Cliff Notes before I can enjoy them. Shakespeare can be a bit heavy, but when mischievous Puck (played by Alisha Menon – also a student of the Northwest Children’s Theater) rendered his soliloquy I suspect it was a lot easier for most of the audience to understand and relate to, without taking a class first. The fairy king and queen – Oberon and Titania, Bottom, Hermia, Lysander and the other characters all came to life in an unusual new way, quite an achievement by the performers given that they must have had to switch from dance to theater mode constantly.
There were a few long pauses – this was a dance school of children on stage after all, but given all the characters, costumes and elements that must have been involved, it was quite a slick professional production. A special mention should be made of the foursome that dominated the ballet and tap dance routines. Their inclusion in the dance program clearly indicates that Anita Menon is one of the few creative dance teachers in Portland who can think out of the box.
-Lakshmi Jagannathan, Executive Director, TIE Oregon