East West Players abandons its usual fare (i.e. Asian-American-themed plays and musicals and mainstream plays and musicals with Asian-American casts) for an evening of South Asian dance. Those expecting colorful, Bollywood-style musical numbers will be disappointed, however, and so too I fear will EWP’s subscriber and fan base. Far more suited for a limited run at a Performing Arts Center specializing in eclectic music and dance, Navarasa Dance Theatre’s Encounter, while artfully designed and beautifully performed, failed to ignite this reviewer’s interest, its eighty-minute running time feeling considerably longer despite the talent involved.

 Based on a short story by Mahasweta Devi, Encounter opens with a striking image, that of a woman tied to a post and hanging by her knees as a group of army officers interrogate her. A series of flashbacks, told in dance and occasional English-language dialog, reveal this woman, Dopdi Mejhen (Aparna Sindhoor) to be part of a band of traveling entertainers whom the military are attempting to chase out of the forest.

Encounter’s eight scenes alternate between the village where the Tribal Dance Company are putting on their show and the military camp of the opening sequence, to which we return in Scene Eight for Dopdi’s torture and rape.

 Hardly Bollywood fare, and rather tough going at that, and not simply for the unpleasantness of some of its subject matter. Despite snatches of conversation, it is often unclear what is happening onstage, particularly in scenes involving the traveling entertainers. Is what they are doing part of their act or is it real? This reviewer would be hard-pressed to answer this or other questions, though to East West Players’ credit,  a plot synopsis is included with each program.

 Encounter’s dances, directed and choreographed by Sindhoor and Anil Natyaveda (who plays Dopdi’s husband Dulna Majhi), are at their most striking in aerialist moves, or in those performed with astonishing athleticism and body control on the towering pole from which we first see Dopdi hanging. Modern and folk dance aficionados will likely take to Encounter’s fusion of these two dance modes in ways that this reviewer did not.

East West Players is to be saluted for including a South Asian-themed entry in their 47th Season, as they did a year ago with Shane Sakhrani’s infectiously funny and utterly charming A Widow Of No Importance. Still, I can’t help wishing they had stuck with what EWP regulars expect from them, plays and musicals with casts of locally-based Asian-American performers, a vital, talented community of actors who end up shortchanged by the importing of Navarasa Dance Theatre members Sindhoor, Natyaveda, Raghu Narayanan, Leah Vincent, Sunil Kumar, and Suvarna Raj, gifted dancers as they may be.

 Encounter does provide Scenie-winning Lighting Director Of The Year Jeremy Pivnick another chance to strut his stuff, as he sheds rich, vivid light on scenic coordinators Tesshi Nakagawa, Natyaveda, and Chris Fitch’s jungle-themed set. Beth Kelley’s costumes are colorful and varied, as might be expected, and Isaac Thomas Kottukapally’s music provides an eclectic, exotic backdrop to Encounter’s many dance sequences.

Additional credit goes to Yoshi Irie (master sound), Seth Walker (stage manager), and Bernice Mendez (assistant stage manager).

Ultimately, though East West Players’ attempt at diversifying its annual four-production programming slate is an admirable one, this reviewer couldn’t help wishing they had stuck with the tried and true.

East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
September 12, 2012
Photos: Michael Lamont

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