Gitanjali's great leap falls short

Director Alvin Tan and playwright Haresh Sharma described Gitanjali (I Feel The Earth Move) as one of their most ambitious productions yet - and it is.

Here is a production that brings together the largeness of Rabindranath Tagore's poetic vision, the big ideas of God, nature, beauty and man, with the microcosm of a family struggling to make its way in an evolving world.

Elderly dance teacher Savitri (Padma Sagaram) is convinced that her star pupil, Priya (Raka Maitra), will take charge of her classical dance school. But the younger woman leaves for Canada. Savitri's son, Shankara (Ebi Shankara), is tired of his overbearing mother's pleas for him to marry, even as she brokers an ideal match through www.tamil with Singaporean girl Nandini (Sharda Harrison), whose past is a question mark.

Sweeping together contemporary and classical dance (with the wonderful dancer-choreographer Ole Khamchanla channelling the spirit of Tagore), recitations of Tagore's poetry, live music, a frenzy of multimedia and the haunting tonality of a Hindustani vocalist singing live, Gitanjali reaches for great heights but falters before it gets there.

Gitanjali is a piece tugged in two directions: to be character- and idea - driven at the same time. All the characters are touchpoints in an arc that aims for the cosmic, the transcendent, with Tagore's invocation of God in his poetry tying everything together. Whether ugly or beautiful, art acts (or is supposed to act) as a bulwark against sorrow and suffering, as much as it was an anchor in Tagore's own life.

But as the character-driven main plot ambles along, drifting in different directions the moment it attaches itself to something, the various elements of Gitanjali feel roughly stitched together, fast-forwarding through stories to dwell a little longer on a fragment of a dance or a piece of poetry.

First, the narrative toys with the tensions between tradition and modernity: Will Priya stay to develop perfection in the classical or leave to tackle the contemporary? Will Nandini choose an arranged marriage ("Your birth charts match perfectly," Savitri coos) over what seems to have been a passionate relationship with a Chinese man?

But then the production breaks with these questions and runs with the idea of dance as a means of bringing social issues to the fore, set against images of India's independence and discussions on colonialisation between Tagore and Gandhi. And then these issues are left behind yet again to focus on Nandini's countless miscarriages and her desperation for children spliced with great grief and loss.

The result is a swirl of intriguing ideas, each cast aloft but never quite finding their place in the Gitanjali constellation.

The stage is deliberately kept bare, apart from the occasional piece of furniture anchoring a character to a part of the stage. Screens are raised and lowered, on which projections cascade - from the whirl of the Milky Way to shifting images of Tagore and his contemporaries.

The blankness of the set might have been an attempt to reflect some sort of universality of story, where one family's journey could take place at any time, anywhere. But it also means that we are constantly faced with a stark emptiness and even if we are prompted to imagine the rest of the characters' environs, the richness of their actual locales only heightens that hollow disconnect.

Despite all this, the characters are all likeable and deeply sympathetic. Viewers want to feel for the delightfully acid- tongued matriarch whose world is being swept from under her feet by the changing times, who loves to dance but can no longer do so because of age. We long to root for her only son and new daughter-in-law, so keen to make their marriage work. We yearn to be transported by Priya's giftedness and her willingness to innovate.

I wish I had been able to feel more for these rapidly sketched characters and relationships, to have these characters be an emotional conduit to the meat of the production's ideas. But Gitanjali is so excited to contain all these elements and characterisations that each barely gets enough stage time. A dance is over shortly after it begins, one poem segues into another before we can truly sink our teeth into its meaning.

Some of Tagore's poems took on meaning for me only when I re-read them, on the page, particularly a lovely excerpt from The Fugitive in which the poem's narrator encounters a great Sorrow from earlier in his life, personified - and realises that this sorrow has diminished over the years, healed over and transformed, the way a scab shields a wound and later disappears.

"What was sorrow once has now become peace," a voiceover intones repeatedly and insistently, but oddly lacking in emotional resonance.

Experienced odissi dancer Maitra and contemporary dancer Jereh Leong make a strong effort to hold their own, theatrically, but are sometimes dwarfed by their theatre counterparts who are visibly more comfortable on stage. Even so, first-night jitters seemed to throw awkward pauses and jagged pacing into the mix.

That is not to say that each individual element does not shine. There are some absolutely exquisite moments of dance and music. Hindustani vocalist Namita Mehta and sound artist Bani Haykal are a perfect sonic marriage of the experimental and the classical. Maitra performs the story of the indivisible lovers, Radha and Krishna, as if she were embodying the inseparable pair with a twist of her wrists and an arched foot in the air, every gesture beautiful and precise.

Gitanjali marks a continuation of sorts to the group's 1997 Galileo (I Feel The Earth Move), similarly anchored by a large historical figure and integrating multiple disciplines into a single work.

But with each discipline lining up for the spotlight, it is less a woven tapestry and more of a patchwork quilt - each square beautifully tailored, but held together by weaker threads.

It is a bold experiment all the same, and I hope as the group continues to explore the blurring boundaries of genre and form, that we will begin to feel the earth pulse and quicken beneath our feet.

This article was first published on September 29, 2014.
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