Erin and I have great respect for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders’ need to preserve our traditional heritages — they enrich our lives and help give us our sense of identity with the countries of our ancestors. I think too few young Asian Americans hold on to their ethnic heritage.
At the same time, we’re not just about kimonos and martial arts and traditional music and dances, and don’t appreciate that outsiders (white people, mostly) view us through the exoticized filter of our cultural and social traditions. That’s why, during her tenure as editor-in-chief of Asian Avenure magazine, Erin sought to paint Denver’s AAPI communities with a broader palette. Major stories were about AAPIs in politics, the popularity of Anime with non-Asians, Asian Americans in the U.S. military, multi-racial Asian Americans and even how Asian Americans are excelling in hip-hop dance.
Erin also wrote this month about Namita Khanna Nariani, the founder of Mudra Dance Studio, who’s a terrific example of how AAPIs can synthesize their respect for traditional culture with the modern energy and pan-cultural richness of being Asian in America.
The Mudra troupe just performed its annual benefit concert over the last two weekends, and the half that we were fortunate to see yesterday (we had to levae early for other commitments) was so great that I wished it could be performed over a week or two, so more people could see it. It was so good that I thought it could hold its own on stages in New York City, anywhere in California, or the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.
“‘Milapp … Amalgamation,'” was all about Erin and my favorite topic: the cross-cultural pollination of Asian heritages with American society, and the emergence of a fresh new artistic vision. Nariani is well-equipt to monge together this new aesthetic, because she’s a South Asian who’s been trained in Indian classical dance since childhood, but who’s also a working architect with an innate sense of design and style that’s not bound by tradition. And for her, architecture is dance and dance is design.
“Milaap” was Mudra’s 10th annual showcase, and it showed a troupe that’s grown in quality and professionalism. This concert was a benefit for East Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp, part of a wonderful program that hosts “heritage camps” for children adopted from foreign countires so they can retain their ethnic culture. Nariani has been resolute that the proceeds from each of her annual concerts go to a charity, even as her own troupe has earned the right to be called a legal non-profit.
The performance was a multi-media affair, with dynamic, smartly-conceived digital graphics flashing on a giant screen at the back of the stage at the Lakewood Cultural Center, a nice, cozy auditorium for this type of community event. The performance was also a multi-cultural affair, a collaboration with Denver Taiko, the popular, award-winning 30-year-old drum group that features young Japanese Americans (plus a couple of older members from its founding).
The first time we saw Mudra perform, Namita collaborated with Nigerian drummers, so we’ve seen Mudra’s cross-cultural side before. After that show, Erin suggested Namita work with Denver Taiko, and they’ve done that on several occasions on a song or two, but never on such a deep level.
The taiko drummers drove the rhythm during the opening sequences, with dancers coming out and showcasing the variety of movements that Nariani invariably incorporates, with elements of Indian, ballet and modern dance. At times we expected the dancers to slip into hip-hop moves because the beat was so powerful.
The members of Denver Taiko who collaborated on the performance also showcased some of their own music, which were new to us, and showed how they’re constantly evolving and adding to their repertoire. Their timing and precision was exquisite, and their drumming fit perfectly with the intricate and equally precise choreography.
The part of the performance we saw definitely left me wishing for more. I’ll pick up the DVD when it’s available (we picked up a DVD of last year’s performance, “‘Ahtaap’ … Conversations”).
If you’re in Colorado and ever get to see Mudra Dance Stuido perform, don’t miss them. They’ve been regulars at the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival since 2002, when Erin first booked them at the annual pan-Asian event.
But really, they deserve to play on a national stage. People in New York or Los Angeles deserve to see Mudra Dance Studio at work. Who knows, maybe Nariani will achieve that level of success soon enough.