By Bridgette M. Redman
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
When most people think of Indian dance, their minds travel first to Bollywood.
However, Rina Mehta of the Leela Dance Collective said there is an older dance tradition, from which Bollywood drew on. She’s bringing that dance form to the streets of Pasadena as part of a 10-day festival spanning neighborhoods in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In Pasadena, “ReSound: Kathak in the Streets” will feature the workshop “Before Bollywood” and a special performance that introduces Leela’s newest ensemble of student performers.
Kathak is a form of North Indian classical dance that goes back centuries. It was once performed in the courts of India and has been the inspiration for more modern forms of Indian dance. A storytelling form of dance that features fancy footwork, Kathak was brought to the United States by Pandit Chitresh Das and the founders of the Leela Dance Collective were his disciples.
Mehta, one of the organization’s founders and the ReSound choreographer, said the festival was born out of the pandemic. Kathak is eager to bring it to the community.
“We wanted to bring back live performance,” Mehta said. “We felt really strongly that we wanted to use our art form as a vehicle to build and rebuild and re-engage community and connection.”
The festival features four dancers and hosts 12 workshops and 15 performances.
She said they recognized that geography can be a big hurdle to overcome, especially in Los Angeles. Instead of selecting one performance space, they have chosen to perform in many neighborhoods to reach as many people as possible.
“If you are in Santa Monica, the folks from Pasadena aren’t going to come,” Mehta said. “So, while you may put on a phenomenal show, you end up being inaccessible to a large part of the city. We wanted to take our art form into the communities, to use the art form to revitalize neighborhoods and bring some life back.”
The inspiration behind the Pasadena workshop — which kicks off the events throughout Los Angeles — is to show how Bollywood dance traces back to Kathak.
“We want to show people how Kathak dance made its way into mainstream media,” Mehta said. “We want to introduce people to the art form and show them how it is relevant. The themes are very intellectual, but dancers are going to get it and move their bodies and try out some of the steps of Kathak.”
On Saturday, Sept. 25, they will host one of their centerpiece events, a performance at Pasadena Memorial Park. Leela recently launched a dance company of youth ages 13 to 18. The main company at the teens will dance for an hour. It is the inaugural performance for the youth company.
The performances showcase percussive footwork, swift pirouettes, dynamic repertoire and mostly recorded music (a dancer will provide some vocalizations). They’ll perform on special boards designed to support their footwork and protect the barefoot dancers.
The performers include members of the Leela Dance Collective, ensemble dancers Sonali Toppur, Ahana Mukherjee, Carrie McCune and Ria DasGupta.
“We want people to meet our dancers and to be transported to a world of music, dance, romance and excitement,” Mehta said.
Sticking to classic form
Kathak has traveled around the world and dance has evolved each step along the way.
“It is spurring creativity and innovation in what we do artistically,” Mehta said. “We’re now having to dance on boards, in parks and in streets.”
Mehta said the dance brings people even closer to the art form, and breaks down the barriers that are erected between dancer and audience in theaters.
“With these street performances, we are here on the same street you walk on, next to the restaurant you eat at,” Mehta said.
“For us, it is really getting people up close and intimate. Our hope is that by doing so, the art form becomes familiar to them, that they’re able to learn a little bit of some basics about rhythm and storytelling, how deep it is, how rich it is, and really how relevant it can be and is to our modern-day life.”
ReSound pieces are classics. Some dances will tell stories, and others will be purely rhythm and movement. They do bring in narration for some of the storytelling, but Mehta stresses they are recognizable to everyone.
“All epic stories are universal stories,” Mehta said. “The character might be South Asian or Indian, but they’re about love and loss and greed and the victory of good over evil. Any stories we choose to do will have really universal themes and narration.”
In the Leela Dance Collective and specifically the 10-day ReSound performance, the artists are committed to preserving the dance. Mehta said they are committed to an integrity around the form.
“We may innovate many, many things, but at the root, the integrity around the form is very high,” Mehta said. “The technique, the music, the movement, the repertoire, we definitely hold a lot of integrity around those things. Then we innovate around the form and in the form as appropriate.”
She said she walks a fine line as a choreographer. While making decisions, she is mindful of Kathak’s roots. She also holds true to the core of what her teacher taught her: Art form is there to bring joy.
“Our core purpose at Leela Dance is to bring joy through Kathak,” Mehta said. “That is something we preserve in everything we do. No matter what we do, if the audience isn’t walking away joyful, we haven’t done our job.”
Workshops and performances
All the ReSound public performances are free, and workshops — which can be taken live or virtually — are $10. Workshop registration is available at leela.dance/resound. The full schedule of performances and workshops in the Los Angeles half of ReSound are:
• 7 to 8 p.m. Sept. 22: “Before Bollywood” workshop, The Vault Dance Studio, Pasadena.
• 7 to 8 p.m. Sept. 23: “Bare Feet Beats” workshop, Evolution Studios, North Hollywood.
• Noon to 1 p.m. Sept. 24: Grand Park performance, Downtown Los Angeles.
• 6:30 to 7 p.m. Sept. 24: The Village at Topanga performance, Woodland Hills.
• 10 to 11 a.m. Sept. 25: “From Sensuality to Spirituality” workshop, The Electric Lodge, Venice.
• 1:30 to 2 p.m. and 2:30 to 3 p.m. Sept. 25, Third Street performance at the Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica.
• 5:30 to 6 p.m. Sept. 25: Pasadena Memorial Park.
• 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 26: Kathak Karnival, family festival, workshop and performance, Oak Canyon Community Park, Oak Park.
• 3 to 4 p.m. Sept. 26: “The Indian Avatars” workshop, Diaz Studio of Dance, Culver City.
• 4 to 5 p.m. Sept. 26: “Movement, Music and Meditation” workshop, Diaz Studio of Dance, Culver City.
• 5:30 to 6 p.m. Sept. 26: Culver City Town Plaza performance.
“I would definitely recommend coming to both a workshop and a performance, if possible,” Mehta said. “Seeing the art form is one way to experience it, but there is nothing like getting on the dance floor and moving your body. It’s a whole other level of experience, and audience members can do both.”
“ReSound: Kathak in the Streets” by the Leela Dance Collective
WHEN/WHERE: Sept. 17 to Sept. 19 in San Francisco;
Sept. 22 to Sept. 26 in Los Angeles
COST: Free; registration required for some events