Astad Deboo, the dancer-choreographer from Bombay who made his Washington debut at Dance Place this past weekend, left one more impressed by what he represents -- a striving for cross-cultural fertilization -- than by the expressive impact of his performances. Still, one must admire the boldness and pertinacity of his lifelong quest for East-West rapprochement.
"Multiculturalism" is relatively new terminology, but the phenomenon is as old as the hills. People's natural curiosity about the way other people do things, and the resultant swapping of styles, has always fueled interchange. Within the present century, dance artists as diverse as Ruth St. Denis, Lester Horton and La Meri (Louisville-born Russell Meriwether Hughes) have combed through world cultures for materials they could fruitfully combine with their own traditions, and non-Western artists such as Africa's Asadata Dafora, India's Uday Shankar and Japan's Michio Ito built influential international careers starting, so to speak, from the other end and working their way westward.
It is to this honorable company that Deboo belongs. Born in India in 1947, he studied classical Indian Kathak and Kathakali there, but also ventured as far afield as American modern and jazz dance, Japanese folk dance and the neo-expressionism of Pina Bausch to add to his storehouse of idiomatic resources. He has roamed the globe -- his dossier lists 36 countries spanning five continents in which he has toured extensively -- as a soloist and teacher, alighting for such noteworthy projects as a collaboration with Pink Floyd in London, and a commission to choreograph for Maya Plisetskaya in Paris.
The six solo vignettes he displayed at Dance Place yesterday afternoon fell into two broad categories. One pair, "Confluence" and "Untitled," were more or less abstract dances designed as demonstrations of the viability of the stylistic fusions that are Deboo's forte. "Confluence" mingled modern dance basics with such recognizably Indian elements as rolling eyebrows, a mobile neck, articulate toes and fingers and snaking arms and shoulders. In it, moreover, Deboo made clever use of a geometric prop -- taut strands of rope gathered to his body by his hands, back or legs -- in a manner suggestive of the work of Alwin Nikolais. "Untitled" added jazz style shimmies to the mix.
The other four pieces were character studies in which the stylistic hybridization was asked to serve dramatic ends. "Duel," performed to Mussorgsky's "A Night on Bald Mountain," was a conflict between a grimacing grotesque and a noble; good and evil, if you will. "Lamentation," danced in a black unitard, used hunched, twisted, sharply angled moves and poses in an almost Butoh-like incarnation of grief. "Asylum" was a depiction of a lunatic's morbid fantasies, "Broken Pane" a portrait of drug addiction.
This last piece, the longest and most ambitious of the program, illustrated both the interest and the pitfalls of Deboo's work. By virtue of his eclectic training and outlook, there's no corner of his face or body Deboo cannot effectively call into play in exploring a dramatic theme. But the piece never goes beyond surface mimicry and hence fails to engage one empathetically with its protagonist. Rhythmically and structurally amorphous, it's also excessively literal -- three times Deboo jabs himself with a hypodermic, each time going into paroxysms of twitching and convulsion as a sequel; it's at least twice too often, and rather pointlessly explicit. Moreover, Deboo, at 43, physically lacks the smoothness and nuance that, in earlier years, might have given the violence of the characterization more edge. All in all, the choreographer's amalgam of styles and images seemed more compelling in concept than in application.