On Saturday night choreographer Rita Mustaphi and composer JD Steele proved that there still are new ways to interpret an ancient Hindu epic poem. “The Mahabharata” is a story of deities and mortals, war and peace, love and revenge. All of these themes showed up on the O’Shaughnessy stage at St. Catherine University as part of the ambitious and mostly successful dance opera “Karna — The Abandoned Hero” performed by Mustaphi’s Katha Dance Theatre along with Steele and several guest musical artists.
This is not the first time Mustaphi has paired the north Indian classical dance form of Kathak with African-American gospel music. Two previous projects have featured the golden-voiced Robert Robinson, who appears in “Karna” along with Steele, vocalist Gretchen Baglyos Reed, keyboardist Billy Steele and percussionist Marc Anderson. The musical composition for “Karna” uses a seamless blend of gospel as well as jazz and soul influences to play with the intricate rhythmic patterns underlying Kathak dance.
A lot happens in just one hour — the central character Karna (Anurag Sharma) undergoes a Hamlet-like existential crisis sparked by the discovery that he is actually the son of Queen Kunti (Mustaphi) but was discarded shortly after his birth. This newfound lineage means the battle he’s planning is actually against his own flesh and blood. Mustaphi’s choreography delves into this personal conflict and Sharma delivers a performance that is both technically precise and dramatically believable, if occasionally overwrought.
Other standout performers include Monica Singh as a young Kunti and Asha Sharma as Princess Draupadi. Each dances with exceptional lightness and Baglyos Reed gives crystal-clear voice to their thoughts and dilemmas. Derek Phillips is well grounded in his roles as Sage Durbasha and Karna’s friend Krishna. Throughout, composer Steele allows his fluent singing to explore different tonal pathways.
The work struggles in the translation of traditional text to more-contemporary operatic song — at times the words soar while at others they feel unwieldy. The best synthesis comes when Steele allows himself the freedom to experiment so the connection between past and present truly reveals itself within unexpected emotional translations.
There is much to learn from cross-cultural collaboration, and “Karna” is a fine example of how a uniting of creative minds can lead to a meaningful outcome.
Caroline Palmer writes about dance.