Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Brilliant “Dance Like a Man” gives us a real taste of India

Dance Like a Man (Agastya Kohli)
Dance Like a Man
(at ACT Theatre)
Through August 9, 2015

Pratidhwani is giving us a unique opportunity to experience an Indian play by an Indian playwright, Mahesh Dattani, based in India. And it’s a brilliant one, exceptionally well produced and directed by Agastya Kohli. Dance Like a Man, presented at ACT Theatre in their ACTLab partnership, is a family comedy-drama set in one room, a rather conventional set-up for an unfolding theme of much larger scope.

The play appears to be a familiar older generation versus younger generation piece about traditions and the always-changing pressures of modernity. But it’s not two generations, it’s three. We meet a young woman, Lata (Tanvee Kale) who brings home her intended Viswas (Jay Athalye) to meet her parents (Abhijeet Rane and Meenakshi Rishi).

But her parents are not typical. They are dancers. This makes them very unusual, even for present times. In order to dance, her parents had to struggle very hard to break the traditional mantle of the grandfather’s generation. What we learn about dance in the production shows that more than just rebellion against elders is at stake.

In India, there has been a long-established uneasiness with dance that we Westerners, seeing the exuberance of Bollywood dancing, have no idea about. For hundreds of year, dance was mostly the province of women of the temples. When patronage of temples was strong, dancing women were seen as giving their gift of movement to God.

When the British colonization undercut temple patronage, many temple women, bereft of support, were turned into prostitutes, and their dancing was dishonored by the British and degraded. Reclamation of dance as a culturally accepted activity has been a key component to rectifying Indian art.

The grandfather (also played by Abhijeet Rane) is a civil rights pioneer who helped overthrow the British Empire’s yoke. Yet, he actively discourages his son (also played by Jay Athalye) from dancing as not a manly profession. The theme of “manliness” runs throughout: is it manly to uphold a dancing tradition even in the face of disapproval? Is it more manly to make money and succeed financially?

This is a perfectly cast play. Three of the four actors here have to play double roles, younger and older generations. Once you get used to the switch, it becomes very easy to understand the back-and-forth in time. They all speak in English/Indian accents, which may take a few minutes (or more) to get used to. But the effort is well worth it.

On a simple, elegant living room set (by David Hsieh), the lives of this family unfold. Some of the conversation involves petty dance community in-fighting, some involves the dance debut of the young Lata, where her mother hopes Lata can rise beyond the more meager success of her parents. It’s amusing and engaging, and easily establishes the family relationships.

But throughout, there are deeper stories and more consequential decisions that we discover, as the groundwork for the present is unearthed. Ultimately, we find this is no ordinary family drama, and who they are and how they have survived is a fascinating question.

This is a must-see production and one that you can feel comfortable bringing younger children (perhaps 11 and up) to give them an exotic taste of theater. You’ll learn a lot (while not feeling like you’re learning anything at all) and have a lot to chew on afterward – something many people love about good theater.

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