CHITRESH DAS FINDS east everywhere. It's, of course, in the rising sun, as it is in his ancestral and spiritual birthplace in Calcutta. But he feels east present as well in his West Coast home of San Rafael, Calif. There, this master artist of the North Indian dance form kathak instructs what he describes as a "rainbow coalition" of students -- young and old, blond, brunette and raven-haired -- in the particulars of the centuries-old form of dance drama laden with pyrotechnic turns and intricate rhythms. Friday at the Publick Playhouse in Cheverly, Das brings his Chitresh Das Dance Company to perform "East as Center," an intriguing evening bridging three cultures.
"I live between Calcutta and California," Das explained recently, describing his frequent visits home and to his other dance teaching centers in Toronto and Boston. But what makes his latest dance work unusual is how, in his view, "all things east come to the center." Now 60 and a onetime child dance prodigy, Das celebrates the epic tale of Ramachandra, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, who overcame evil. Like a Homeric "Odyssey," the journey of Ram features temptations and battles, anthropomorphic incarnations and magic circles. Das recounts these adventures through the artistry of three cultures and their indigenous dance and musical forms: North India and kathak dance; South India and kathakali dance; and Bali and its breathtaking Balinese dance form.
This cultural collaboration features Das dancing the role of Ravanna, the demon king, and two other masters of their forms: kathakali dancer Guru Govindan Kutty as Maricha, uncle of the demon king; and Balinese dance master Ni Ketut Arini , as Jatayu, the vulture king. Das, too, has recast many traditionally male roles for female dancers, who, he says, demonstrate uncommon power in the percussive kathak form.
These three dance forms share highly stylized acting, makeup and costuming; meticulously codified and intricate facial movements; famously syncopated and swift, rhythmic footwork; and finely tuned gestures called mudras, a series of hand signals that communicate the story through an ancient sign language. But Das isn't worried that uninitiated audiences will miss the subtleties of this ancient myth culled from an epic 3rd century poem of 50,000 lines.
"Kathak is like flamenco without the flamenco boots, tap without the tap shoes," Das points out. "It has speed and power and intensity and then the percussion, the drumming, that answers the dancers' feet. It's entertaining." He notes that even in India, only a select few are conversant in the complex mudras. He says: "There's joy in not knowing everything. See it with an open mind."
Tehreema Mitha, too, turns eastward when she dances. The Bethesda-based choreographer and company director performs the South Indian classical form bharata natyam. This weekend her Tehreema Mitha Dance Company appears at the Jack Guidone Theater in the District. The Pakistani-born artist, trained by her mother, Indu Mitha, who fled her Indian homeland during the era of partition, looks east for inspiration. The younger Mitha decries the concept of fusion between east and west in her works. Her concerts feature purely classical solos, such as "Tillana," based on the sculptural poses of a dancing girl excavated at the ancient Pakistani site Moenjodaro.
But Mitha breaks from the classical rigidity of bharata natyam, once a temple and courtly form, by introducing group of dancers where solos were typically the norm. She also finds inspiration in modern themes. Her "Regular 925" eschews Hindu mythology to detail the lives of two working mothers using dance and gestures that enmesh both cultures. Mitha's premiere, "Baad-E-Sbah," bridges the classical and contemporary styles that intrigue her. "I guess the imp in me could not resist being naughty," she says, alluding to the rigidity of bharata natyam's strictures against touching. "Having any contact on stage between dancers is nontraditional. I have, however, put these lifts in because they just seemed right in the right places."
Mitha avoids labels, culling from the ancient style of her mother's roots in India and from the modern creativity she has encountered in the west. "I have a multicultural troupe. I want us to be even more so and I want the same for my audiences. I want people to just simply come and enjoy."
CHITRESH DAS DANCE COMPANY -- Friday at 8 and Saturday at 3, Publick Playhouse, 5445 Landover Rd., Cheverly. 301-277-1710.
TEHREEMA MITHA DANCE COMPANY -- Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 7, Jack Guidone Theater, 5207 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 301-581-9520.