Thursday 2 March 2023

TWO: Dance Review

 What: Two
When: 1 - 4 March 2023
Where: Arts House (Main Hall)
Choreography by: Raghav Handa
Design by: Justine Shih Pearson
Performed by: Raghav Handa and Maharshi Raval
Lighting by: Karen Norris

Raghav Handa and Maharshi Raval - photography by Joseph Mayers

It's dance season in Melbourne and it kicks off with an incredible multi-cultural line up at Arts House this year. We all love the flavour and energy of Bollywood and the current show, Two, gives us a kind of behind the scenes sneak peak into some of the traditions and history of Indian dance and how welcoming and joyful the more popular forms of entertainment have come into being.

Whilst not a deeply classical Kathak performer, Raghav Handa began his training in this style and has held on to those ideas in his development as a contemporary dancer and choreographer. Along the way he met and performed with tabla virtuoso Maharshi Raval and a bromance the scope of myth and legend came into being. Also, in what seems like the most natural of outcomes, this beautiful show about sharing, pairing, and caring has emerged.

Two is a show about tradition and the modern world. This makes it the most interesting of conversations because we struggle with this question on a daily basis. What is tradition and how do we make it work in a world where we travel all over the place and a world where technology and lifestyle changes faster than the generations are created. What are the important bits? What should we keep? What bits don't fit any more? Where are the parts which can flex and bend and adapt? How do we do that and still show our deep respect for what has been? It would be asking way too much of any show to answer all of these questions but in Two Handa and Raval lead the way in a beautiful duet which makes the spirit soar.

I should begin with a little bit of information about the Kathak dance tradition so that you will better understand Two. Kathak is one of the traditional dance styles of India. Katha means 'story' and a kathakar is 'one who tells a story'. The dance style focuses on the feet and face of the performer with great flexibility across the body. All of this is embodied completely in the work of Handa.

Another important set of traditions sit around the musicians accompanying the dancers. Firstly, they never set up their own instruments, they just come in and play. Secondly, the dancers are never allowed to touch the instruments. There are other rules, but these are the ones you mostly need to know about to understand and appreciate the duel/duet of the tale of Two.

The conversation about tradition begins from the moment we enter the theatre. Handa is walking around and warming up and stretching in front of the audience. Not completely unusual these days but certainly outside the parameters of most dance traditions. Then Raval enters and the instruments have not been set up. He begins by sitting on a staging box and tapping out rhythms as Handa works through the Nritta part of the performance. The Nritta is a sequence of dance technique which begins slow but through repetitions builds up in pace and scale until it is quite frenetic. You can think of the Nritta as the amuse-bouche of the dance form.

Raval and Handa then work together to set up the stage and the instruments. Remember, the musician never sets up for themselves and the dancers are never allowed to touch the instruments! Necessity and modern thinking start to force a stretching of traditional norms.

From that point the Nritya of the performance can begin. The Nritya of a Kathak performance is where the expression and story come into existence. The Nritya can be dance, can include talking to the audience, and it can have improvisation. Handa and Raval explore all of these potentials both by honoring the form and testing, teasing and pulling at the fabric of the detail. Even Raval, the exemplar traditionalist, pokes and prods at tradition by getting away from his drums and sharing the performance stage with Handa - almost in defiance of Handa having touched his drums. Together the pair test the dance form, the performance forms, and even western stage protocols. And don't be too shocked, but Handa doesn't even wear bells on his ankles! Traditional Indian costumes? Not in this show!

Two is a duet which is funny, beautiful and outrageously energetic. It is not Bollywood but at one point in the performance I would definitely call it BollyDisco! I think I read somewhere the pair were compared to Laurel and Hardy but for me I felt it to be more Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. There is Raval being all suave and traditional and beside him is Handa teasing, questioning, and deconstructing with love and light.

Handa is an extremely accomplished dancer, and Raval is a true master of the tabla. I recently saw an MSO concert with a featured concert pianist. Watching Raval's lightning hands on the tabla and hearing the sounds he created reminded me of watching the hands of that amazing pianist on the big screen at the Sydney Myer Music Bowl. How do body parts even move that fast? And yet there was Handa, matching, meeting, moving feet and body in time.

Two starts slowly (although I think if you know a bit about the traditions from the start it helps to see the subtlety of their work) but it builds and builds until the audience is whooping and hollering at the incredible dance moves and fantastic staging which explodes as the story unfolds. What story? The story of Two. Two men. Two traditions. Two countries. Two times. Two. As an interesting aside, even though both men are Indian, they do not speak the same language. The languages they communicate through are the foreign English, and the language of Kathak.

4.5 Stars

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