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Half-baked 'Rice' at UCLA

A multicultural theater piece based on the lore of the grain includes too many amateurish performances, too little thoughtful synthesis.

September 29, 2003|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Three days after Bangladeshi British choreographer Akbar Khan showed us a brilliant synthesis of north Indian kathak and Western contemporary dance idioms, UCLA mounted an amateurish multicultural dance theater piece Saturday at the Aratani Japan America Theater.

Called "The Art of Rice Traveling Theater," the work was created and performed by 11 artists in the UCLA Center for Intercultural Performance's Asia Pacific Performance Exchange Program. It purported to explore one common, unifying thread among the participants' various countries and cultures: rice. Which apparently meant that anything remotely related to rice fit. But some things didn't.

Like most works created by committee, there was no real unity and more juxtaposition than synthesis. There were 13 sections, ranging from theater skits on the intellectual level of a comic book to world music lite interludes to dances that rarely conveyed meaning through movement. The sections could have been rearranged without altering the work's minimal dramatic effect in any way. Some could have been dropped, and most would have benefited by severe pruning.

Under the circumstances, details and moments had to suffice for generating any interest. Musicians I Dewa Puta Berata, Kenny Endo and Kyaw Kyaw Naing had a fascinating rhythm jam session playing bamboo tubes of various lengths. But what was the connection to the theme: Where there's rice, there's bamboo?

Ettumanoor Kannan Parameswaran, an exponent of the south Indian kathakali dance idiom, appeared without the traditional elaborate costuming and makeup but still proved eloquent in hand gestures that depicted growth and blossoming, presumably of the rice plant.

Some of the other dancers had moments of crisp, clear movement, but too much of what passed for choreography was mere noodling around onstage.

Another pure music sequence drawing on Japanese taiko, Burmese xylophone and Indonesian gamelan was heartbreakingly thin, especially considering that UCLA once was an intellectual leader in Indonesian music.

As part of the scenic elements, I Made Sidia manipulated Balinese shadow puppets adroitly, although for shallow storytelling.

The work desperately needs to go back for retooling to the workshop from which it came.

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