East West Players' "Encounter" features, from left,… (Michael Lamont )
The “encounter” that is at the heart of Navarasa Dance Theater’s 80-minute performance piece has a specific and dreadful meaning.
An “encounter,” the characters tell us, is the horrific practice of governments scooping up opponents and summarily murdering them. The example of the “disappeared” in Argentina comes to mind. Navarasa Dance Theater’s dance-drama, “Encounter,” presented by East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theater, concerns India and a fight over the lands of destitute indigenous peoples.
Co-directors Aparna Sindhoor and Anil Natyaveda based their earnest danced-play on a short story by one of India’s most celebrated writers, Mahasweta Devi. The heroes are two traveling artists who work alongside the peasants, inspiring courage and loyalty. They toil under harsh conditions.
Scenic coordinators Tesshi Nakagawa, Natyaveda and Chris Fitch have created a spare set to serve all eight scenes, which seesaw between an army encampment (a canvas tent in an upstage corner) and the peasants’ hideaway among oversized bamboo. A downstage pole is a literal and symbolic landmark, for both peaceful interludes and a final rape scene.
The heroes Dopdi (Sindhoor) and her husband, Dulna (Natyaveda), sing and dance to rally their friends. They all pledge an oath to fight to the death, which turns out to be no idle promise.
Both Sindhoor and Natyaveda are originally from India, where they received extensive training in classical dance forms Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. Their theater is now based in Boston, and their works incorporate myriad artistic elements aside from those classical traditions.
Natyaveda is an aerialist, and he hung upside down and balanced horizontally from the pole. The peasants practiced capoeira-style whirling kicks and cartwheels, and fought with batons. In one of the show’s few lighthearted moments, the soldiers revealed their human side through a hilarious Bollywood number.
Sindhoor and Natyaveda, along with contributing writer S M Raju (Sindhoor’s husband), have chosen a literal style of storytelling. They relied on stereotypes and cartoonish figures, veering into agitprop. The alluring complexity and intricacy of the traditional arts is missing, and their choreography was flat and uninspiring. Soldiers goose-stepped. Peasants bent flat-backed to their planting labors. Sindhoor and Natyaveda assumed simplistic poses for a love duet.
Dialogue was delivered in a monotone barking. Isaac Thomas Kottukapally’s recorded musical score herded the audience toward the appropriate emotional response.
This is a small company, but they were unfailingly enthusiastic. Raghu Narayanan, Leah Vincent, Sunil Kumar Thankachan and Suvarna Raj portrayed both heroes and villains, making lightning transitions. Sindhoor sang with clarion tone, while Natyaveda leapt with admirable intensity.
Southern California has a wealth of expert and sophisticated South Asian artists. This “Encounter” left me musing that East West Players could create a local collaboration that just might unearth an encounter of a far richer sort.
"Encounter," David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles; 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 7; $26-$36; (213) 625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.org. Running time: 80 minutes