In ‘Upaj,’ dance unites cultures, gener­ations


MOUNTAIN VIEW — For nearly a decade, Kathak master Pandit Chitresh Das and tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith have performed together in their uniquely expressive collaboration “India Jazz Suites.”

The bond between the two men — which runs far deeper than any dance performance — is explored in “Upaj,” a new documentary from director Hoku Uchiyama which premiered Saturday night at the Chitresh Das Dance Company and Chhandam School of Dance annual gala at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

Das and Smith’s connection exploded from a playful backstage meeting in 2004 into the most compelling — and unforeseen — partnership in modern dance.

Upaj follows Das and Smith as they tour India at events ranging from a wedding of children of diamond merchants to a rowdy crowd of college students electrified by the combination of Kathak and tap.

Beyond the unlikely combination of culture and dance styles, Upaj carries a strong theme of mentorship with strong roots in the guru-shishya parampara, or the traditional relationship between guru and disciple.

Even though Das and Smith transcend that paradigm — with both dancers appearing on stage as equals — the film accurately captures the reverence with which the younger Smith views Das.

The film opens with a clip of Smith appearing as a pre-teen on Sesame Street with fellow tap legend Savion Glover, who cast Smith in the breakthrough Broadway musical “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk” in 1996.

For reasons only obliquely referenced in the film, Smith would fall away from his mentor Glover, then later lose the man he would call in the film his first guru — Gregory Hines — who died of cancer in 2003.

When Das later heart-wrenchingly describes losing his own guru at a young age, one can’t help but chalk up yet another similarity between the 68-year-old Das and the 32-year-old Smith.

The bleak skylines of their hometowns, Kolkata and Jersey City, N.J.; the mothers who influenced them both to dance; and their ebullient, captivating personalities all reveal themselves as parallels between these two very different lives.

Upaj also contrasts the harmonious performances between Das and Smith with other mashups of Indian and American cultures that produce much less artistic results.

In the film, Das and Smith appear on the popular Indian television “Oye! It’s Friday” in front of a backdrop of flashing lights and swirling patterns, as though the dancers themselves couldn’t possibly be enough to maintain the attention of a mainstream Indian television audience.

But when Das and Smith later induce a standing ovation from a raucous auditorium full of college students, the film proves no flashing lights are needed to illuminate the captivating dance moves and vibrant personalities of the two stars.

After the documentary was screened, both artists got onstage and delivered yet another powerful live performance to a captivated crowd of 300 dignitaries, supporters and friends.

They were later joined onstage for a panel discussion with producer Antara Bhardwaj and director Hoku Uchiyama. Executive producer Rina Mehta — who initiated the project — could not be present for the premiere.

In the discussion, director Uchiyama shared his own connection to dance and how it influenced his role with the film:

“Dance has been the family business, my mom is a dancer, she owns a dance company. … I felt like I had a feel for it, I enjoyed the culture around it, and the energy that feeds a dancer. Also, I wanted to make something my mom could see that wasn’t a horror movie.”

Smith and Das’ collaboration may be a lot of things, but one thing it isn’t is “fusion,” Smith said:

“So many people, the first thing they say when they describe this, is ‘fusion.’ And we’re both just standing there like mmm-hmm-hmm. … I embrace that side of this collaboration, because we’re not trying to do each other’s styles. That’s not the mission here. But we’re not shying away from influence and inspiration.”

Das told the audience his training helped him keep up with a powerful dancer less than half his age:

“I was trained to move with somebody half my age with that kind of speed and drama. … Also my desire … to really bring each other’s energy, my guru used to say this, to dance in such a way where everything becomes one.”

San Jose city councilmember Ash Kalra served as master of ceremonies, and shared a personal perspective on the film:

“The opportunity to see two incredible art forms merged together is a way of me reflecting on my own life and how I’ve come to reconcile the different tensions and different ways I get pulled in my life based on my background. … Art has a wonderful way of helping define ourselves.”

Smith answered a question from the audience and explained how the partnership with Das has changed him as a person and a dancer:

“It puts everything in perspective for me. If I ever thought that I was big time, or at a certain level before, it just brings me back to earth and says I’m just one among many. It doesn’t matter what you do. Just because you’re a face in the crowd doesn’t mean you’re unimportant.”

The annual gala raised more than $100,000 for Das’ Chhandam School of Dance, which teaches Kathak to more than 700 students in the United States and India.

Jesse Garnier
Jesse Garnier is the editor and founder of SFBay. A Mission District native, he also teaches journalism as associate professor at San Francisco State University.

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