Indian dance troupe brings classic dance to the streets of Westside neighborhoods
By Bridgette M. Redman
With workshops and performances, the Leela Dance Collective is putting on a 10-day festival celebrating Kathak dance, an ancient North Indian dance form. The festival features events scattered across Los Angeles and San Francisco with stops in Santa Monica, Venice and Culver City.
The Los Angeles part of the festival kicked off in Pasadena on September 22 and moves to Venice on September 25. It finishes the celebration in Culver City.
Kathak is a form of North Indian classical dance that goes back centuries. It was once performed in the courts of India and has been the inspiration for more modern forms of Indian dance. A storytelling form of dance that features fancy footwork, Kathak was brought to the United States by Pandit Chitresh Das and the founders of the Leela Dance Collective were his disciples.
Rina Mehta, one of the organization’s founders, said the 10-day festival being performed throughout Los Angeles and San Francisco was born out of the pandemic. Kathak is fundamentally a live performance form and they are eager to bring it back to the community.
“We wanted to bring back live performance,” Mehta said. “We felt really strongly that we wanted to use our art form as a vehicle to build and rebuild and re-engage community and connection.”
The festival will take place in two cities, feature four dancers, and host 12 workshops and 15 performances.
Mehta said they recognized that geography can be a big hurdle to overcome, especially in Los Angeles, so instead of selecting one performance space, they have chosen to perform in many different neighborhoods to reach as many people as possible.
“If you are in Santa Monica, the folks from Pasadena aren’t going to come,” Mehta said. “So, while you may put on a phenomenal show, you end up being inaccessible to a large part of the city. We wanted to take our art form into the communities, to use the art form to revitalize neighborhoods and bring some life back.”
They’ll host two street performances on the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, another at a plaza in Culver City and then a series of workshops.
In Venice, the first workshop is called “From Sensuality to Spirituality” and is held at the Electric Lodge at 10 a.m. September 25. The workshop welcomes students of all levels and backgrounds and explores the art of Kathak as a metaphor for the Goddess Radha’s love for Krishna.
“All the Indian traditions have a spiritual element and a storytelling element,” Mehta said. “Traditionally Indian classical dance was and is a pathway to an elevated consciousness or to the divine. One of the common themes in Kathak dance is the love between two Indian mythological figures. Radha and Krishna, their love is supposed to be a metaphor of love of human and divine. It’s a very particular lens into the art form.”
Following the workshop in Venice, there will be two performances on the 3rd Street Promenade at 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. It will feature the ensemble dancers of the Leela Dance Collective, Sonali Toppur, Ahana Mukherjee, Carrie McCune and Ria DasGupta.
The concerts involve taking their traditional dance to the streets while showcasing such traditional dance elements as percussive footwork, swift pirouettes, dynamic repertoire and exhilarating music.
On September 26, the festival moves to Culver City where it closes out with three events: two workshops and a concert. The first workshop is “The Indian Avatars” and is designed for kids ages 5 and up. It runs from 3 to 4 p.m. at the Diaz Studio of Dance. The class includes dance, music, face painting and storytelling. It introduces kids to Kathak and they can learn coordination, movement rhythm, music and dramatic expression.
The second workshop is called “Movement, Music and Meditation” and will be held at 4 p.m. at the same studio. It introduces the beauty and
dynamism of Kathak and introduces participants to the technique, movement, music and poetry of the art form woven together into an experience that is meditation in motion.
“Kathak dance is many things,” Mehta explained. “It is percussive, it has a lot of rhythm, we have a lot of dynamic movement, poetry and storytelling. The music, which is typically live, is very integral to the art form. All of this is supposed to be for you to achieve a higher state of consciousness. We like to talk about the dance as a kind of meditation in motion.”
The festival will close with a 5:30 p.m. street performance at Culver City’s Town Plaza.
These performances mark the latest spot on a trajectory that Kathak dance has traveled. From the courts of India to proscenium stages around the United States to the streets, the dance has evolved at each step along the way.
“It is spurring creativity and innovation in what we do artistically,” Mehta said. “We’re now having to dance on boards, in parks and in streets.”
The latest street dancing is a step that Mehta feels brings people even closer to the art form, breaking down the barriers that are erected between dancer and audience in theaters.
“With these street performances, we are here on the same street you walk on, next to the restaurant you eat at,” Mehta said. “For us, it is really getting people up close and intimate. Our hope is that by doing so, the art form becomes familiar to them, that they’re able to learn a little bit of some basics about rhythm and storytelling, how deep it is, how rich it is and really how relevant it can be and is to our modern-day life.”
The pieces that they will perform in ReSound are classic pieces. They’ll start with classic invocation pieces that consecrate the stage and are filled with symbolism from mythology. Some dances will tell stories and others will be purely rhythm and movement with no story. They do bring in narration for some of the storytelling, but Mehta stresses that they are recognizable to all regardless of background.
“All epic stories are universal stories,” Mehta said. “The character might be South Asian or Indian, but they’re about love and loss and greed and the victory of good over evil. Any stories we choose to do will have really universal themes and narration.”
In both the Leela Dance Collective and specifically the 10-day ReSound performance, the artists are committed to preserving the dance form even as they innovate and make it relevant for today’s audience. Mehta said they are committed to an integrity around the form.
“We may innovate many, many things, but at the root, the integrity around the form is very high,” Mehta said. “The technique, the music, the movement, the repertoire, we definitely hold a lot of integrity around those things. Then we innovate around the form and in the form as appropriate.”
She said it is a fine line she walks as a choreographer. She makes many small decisions where she is constantly mindful of Kathak’s roots. She said you can put together movements one way and you’ve deviated from tradition and another way and it is in a direct line from the original tradition.
Mehta also holds true to the core of what her teacher taught about the art form — that to be an artist is to give and that the art form is there to bring joy.
“Our core purpose at Leela Dance is to bring joy through Kathak,” Mehta said. “That is something we preserve in everything we do. No matter what we do, if the audience isn’t walking away joyful, we haven’t done our job.”
Spread around the city
All the ReSound public performances are free and workshops — which can be enjoyed live or virtually — cost $10 each. Workshop registration is available online.
“I would definitely recommend coming to both a workshop and a performance if possible,” Mehta said. “Seeing the art form is one way to experience it, but there is nothing like getting on the dance floor and moving your body. It’s a whole other level of experience and audience members can do both. And please come out and introduce yourself, talk to the dancers and the teachers. We’d love to get to know you and make ourselves known
ReSound: Kathak in the Streets
Who: Leela Dance Collective
Where: Los Angeles, September 22
to September 26