India Jazz Suites: The Fastest Feet in Rhythm pretty much spells out what will be going down Saturday at the South-Miami Dade Cultural Arts Center. The event is a high-speed hybrid of ancient Indian moves and contemporary tap, created by Kathak dance master Pandit Chitresh Das and celebrated tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith.
Many dancers talk of the energy in their work, but few understand it in the way Das does. The 69-year-old dancer’s pursuit of the sublime doesn’t stop with his deep devotion to Kathak, a classical Northern Indian dance form. He likes to mix things up, juxtaposing the rhythmic structures of his own tradition with others, opening up to improvisation, or as he calls it, a “conversation” between traditions.
Das’ partner in that conversation began his career at age 15 as understudy for Savion Glover in the Broadway production of Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk. Samuels Smith went on to win an American Choreography Award for a televised tribute to Gregory Hines, and founded Los Angeles’ first tap dance festival in 2003. He has tapped his way across prominent stages from London to Chicago, and has appeared as a guest performer on So You Think You Can Dance.
Das’ interest in other traditions began with a ritual fire ceremony six decades ago, marking the start of his training with guru Pandit Ram Narayan Misra, who was more interested in his student’s integrity than his dance technique. In the 18 years they worked together, Misra taught Das the two most important lines within Kathak dance: the sensuality of the Lucknow school and the fierce rhythm of the Jaipur school.
Das’ parents were celebrated dancers in the classical tradition. “It seemed there was never an end to the dancing at home,” he says. “It went on all day and all night. Much of it might have been considered ‘subversive,’ pro-Indian independence reworking of classical works.”
His parents’ dance school was among the most celebrated in Calcutta (now Kolkata), and their son was something of a prodigy. Das’ first public performance was with sitar genius Ravi Shankar.
“I grew up in a golden time,” Das says, referring to his apprenticeship as well as the promise of India in the 1950s. But by the 1970s, fewer Indians seemed interested in their own culture. “One needs to go out of one’s country to understand it,” his mother told him. And so, like so many other young people at the time, Das set out for Berkeley, Calif.
“Everything was going on, some of it wondrous,” he says. “Still, I was isolated from my own roots, my own environment, and when that happens, one recreates one’s own environment.”
Since then, he has recreated that environment all over the world. Today Das has dance schools in Kolkata, Mumbai, San Francisco, Boston and Toronto. He performed at Lincoln Center in New York in 1988 and has been featured in documentaries on PBS and the BBC. He also offers classes to the children of sex workers in Mumbai’s Red Light district and giving workshops at the Blind Opera of Kolkata.
His intention is to honor the instructions of his guru: “To live and to dance as though the [dancers’ ankle] bells, the students, the audience and even a stray chair have all become one.”
In India Jazz Suites, add Samuel Smith’s tapping feet to the sound of those bells. And, Das says, just as when particles collide, “what the audience will be witnessing is energy.”
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