East meets West: Shakespeare and modern dance get taste of Indian flavor / by R. Sheth

September 21, 2007
By Hedy Weiss

The global Bollywood explosion is only the most superficial indicator of the way India has become one of the two great global powerhouses (alongside China) for economic, cultural and social change during the last decade. Indian artists -- whether they are immigrants long-settled in the United States or participants in cultural-exchange programs that flourish by way of onsite visits and e-mail -- are influencing the way we see the world, hear the world and move in the world. Here are just two examples of productions coming to Chicago stages -- one theater, one dance -- that bear an Indian imprint:

Merchant on Venice

Shishir Kurup speaks at something approaching the speed of light. And he is very funny as he explains how he ended up in Los Angeles, where he is not only a playwright, but a stage, TV and film actor (with a recurring role on NBC's Heroes), as well as a director, composer and ensemble member of the Cornerstone Theater Company.

"My family is from the southern part of India, and I was born in Bombay," Kurup, 45, explained, during the course of a chat about Merchant on Venice. His play, a gloss on Shakespeare, is receiving its world premiere at Chicago's Silk Road Theatre Project, the five-year-old company devoted to exploring work by and about those from that vast regions that stretches from Asia to Europe.

"We migrated to Mombasa, Kenya, when I was 5 and arrived in the U.S. in time for me to attend junior high school. Our first stop was Kentucky. Then it was on to Wheaton and Warrenville, Illinois. But there was that snow thing. So we headed to Florida, and now I'm living in L.A."

It was while he was an acting student in the MFA program at the University of California at San Diego that the roots for his Merchant -- a tale about Hindus and Muslims on a particular strip of Los Angeles' Venice Boulevard -- were first planted.

"It was a great program, with the second year devoted entirely to a study of Shakespeare," said Kurup. "And we took one play, which happened to be The Merchant of Venice, and worked on it -- with all its warts and beauty -- for an entire year."

For Kurup, the question became this: "How do you deal with this work for a modern audience, using all the knowledge and psychology we've accrued since Shakespeare's time? How, in particular, do you deal with that terrible scene in which a man is forced to convert and become something he is not? My idea was to put a Muslim in the place of a Jew [Shylock] and see if there was still some resonance. Along the way, I also wanted to explore my own discomfort with this play. It's a work in which, to my mind, no one is left unscathed, and one in which every character is flawed. And while each character has an epiphany, they never coincide."

"I also thought the ideal place to set the story would be a strip of Venice Boulevard I know well," said Kurup, whose play is written in iambic pentameter, and suffused, as well, with the beat of Latin pop, hip-hop and Bollywood. "Venice runs for 14 miles, but the particular area I've homed in on is in Culver City -- a part of the street that teems with halal butcher shops, Thai restaurants, the offices of Indian doctors and both a Hindu temple and a mosque nearby."

Raised a Hindu, Kurup describes himself as "an autodidact" when it comes to religion.

"Like Jamil Khoury [a cofounder, with Malik Gillani, of the Silk Road Theatre Project], I'm interested in the effect religion has on people. I think of religion as a diamond that can cut as well as gleam. It can have great beauty, but it also can be the source of great horror."

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company

East and West. Outdoors and indoors. Public and private. Performer and spectator. Each of these pairings suggests particular boundary conditions. And all this is precisely what San Francisco-based choreographer Margaret Jenkins set out to explore when she devised her full-length work, A Slipping Glimpse, created as a collaboration between Jenkins' self-named company and the Tanusree Shankar Dance Company of Calcutta, India.

The work, created both during onsite residencies and by way of instructions sent via the Internet and DVDs, features dancers from both companies, and takes its title from a quote by painter Willem de Kooning, who observed that "reality is a slipping glimpse."

"We're at a vertiginous moment in history, when it's often difficult to tell on which side of the looking glass we are standing -- or dancing," says Jenkins. "I wanted to explore this sense of cultural shifts and dichotomies. But I didn't want to create a fusion of my modern dance vocabulary, and Tanusree Shankar's company, which is steeped in classical Indian dance, with all its spiritual and cultural connections. Our traditions are different. For example, while we consider partnering and lifts basic, the Indian dancers never touch."

Music for the piece has been composed (and will be performed live) by the Paul Dresher Ensemble, with text by poet Michael Palmer.

The theater itself will undergo a radical reconfiguring, transformed into an in-the-round space with platforms of various heights placed in and around the audience as stages for the dance.