A magnificent exploration of human endurance, ENCOUNTER, by Navarasa Dance Theater, is instantly alluring. The first moments of the 80 minute play open on a woman suspended upside down on a tall wooden post, while around her, camo-clad soldiers bark questions, and threaten her. She barely speaks, but her face gives the promise of a story just itching to be told. Through expressive movement, rhythm, and passion, the extraordinary tale is revealed, and the end result is a show that is at once tragic, beautiful and powerful.
Adapted from a short story, ENCOUNTER follows the life of an indigenous woman, Dopdi, as she leads a small band of rebellious artists against an unjust system of government, threatening their very way of life. The term ‘encounter’ refers to abuse and annihilation of enemies of the state- enemies who are condemned without a trial, and murdered without reason. Such is story is always delicate and difficult to explore, but resonates particularly strongly in Canada. How do we stand and face our past, and recognize the patterns we carry into the future? For a start, we can go see more shows like this, which force us to confront elements of our society that often get shoved back into the closet with the rest of the skeletons.
Scenes of military camps, and rebel meetings are interspersed with vibrant and lively interpretative dance routines, all influenced by traditional Indian and South Asian styles. Rapidly, the stage becomes a place where the extraordinary becomes commonplace. The company is comprised of 8 performers, but they fill the space with the energy and passion of a much larger ensemble. In one particularly exciting sequence, the rebels train for an upcoming confrontation, whirling around the stage, slamming wooden sticks against one another, aggressively agile. In a flash, these moments shift into elongated sequences, all executed with huge amounts of strength and commitment. A section where Dopdi (played by co-creator Aparna Sindhoor) and her husband (fiery Anil Natyaveda) slowly curl around each other, creating beautiful, sculptural forms, is simply breathtaking.
While the movement is largely interpretative, and the exact details of the plot can be a little hazy, the performers are completely immersed in every moment. They straddle the line between organic, loose movement, and precise, meticulous choreography. The effect is that, if the rhythm does veer off course, it only further enhances the total commitment of the performers to the emotional content of the story. The soldiers move in soundless formation, surreal and out of place in the mysticism of the forest. Conversely, Sindhoor commands the stage with a cool, raw power, while the ensemble explode around her like fireworks.
As the play reaches its climax, this juxtaposition is heightened to a nearly frightening degree. Indeed, the last few sequences are so raw and extreme, that one begins to fear for the strain on the performers. On opening night, the lead actress’ voice was all but spent by her final confrontation with the military, disappearing into high rasps and wails. No single dancer onstage pulls any punches; the effort is painfully clear by the time they make their final bow.
Despite this, and a few minor lighting glitches (odd shadows, dropped cues), ENCOUNTER succeeds on sheer force of will. Alternately hypnotic and jarring, mystical and visceral, the small ensemble takes the audience on a journey that leaves a significant lasting impact. An image remains with me: that of Natyaveda sinuously rippling down the wooden post in one powerful, fluid movement. He reaches the ground, and the moment is shattered by immediate violence. In this way, ENCOUNTER draws the audience in, and surprises them with truths, that, while uncomfortable and shocking, are ultimately so vital to witness.
ENCOUNTER is presented by The Cultch and Diwali BC, and runs until Oct 22 at The York Theatre. Ticket information can be found here.
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