Katha Dance Theatre, a troupe dedicated to bringing north Indian artistry to Minnesota, marked its 25th anniversary this past weekend with "In Retrospect" at the O'Shaughnessy in St. Paul.
On Saturday night, artistic director Rita Mustaphi offered a lively and jam-packed showcase of her evolving choreographic approach to the classical dance form Kathak. It also highlighted her interest in cross-cultural collaboration, with guest appearances by Twin Cities artists Zorongo Flamenco, Ethnic Dance Theatre and gospel singer Robert Robinson.
Mustaphi, a native of Kolkata who moved to the Twin Cities in 1971, founded Katha in 1987. Since then, she has sought ways to preserve centuries-old technique while expanding its influence into the present, sometimes adding stylistic twists. "In Retrospect" underscored the multifaceted aspects of Mustaphi's creative personality -- her reverence for the past and her willingness to experiment. The performance, with its 15 selections, was indeed a comprehensive overview, filled with works defined by virtuosity, grace and gentle humor.
Among the more traditional pieces was "Ardhanariswar" (1993), with Asha Sharma and Derek Phillips displaying a subtle sense of symmetry by exploring male and female energies. While that piece highlighted Kathak's sculptural side, the dynamic quartet "Bhajan" (1995) focused on whirling turns and precise gestural elements. "Jugalbandi" (2010), a duet choreographed by Kathak legend Pandit Birju Maharaj, exacted high technical demands on Anurag Sharma and Mustaphi, but they showed poise under pressure.
Flamenco traces its roots to India so there's a natural link between Katha and Susana di Palma's Zorongo troupe. With the premiere of "Journey," it was apparent how the flamenco dancers' undulating arms and hands, not to mention erect posture, resonated with the more angular shapes displayed by the Kathak dancers, as all performed joyfully alongside one another.
Less expected is the relationship between Kathak and gospel music, but Robinson and Mustaphi have forged a connection. His soaring vocals, backed by three divine singers and a tight band, were fitting accompaniment. The dancing had a delightful sense of weightlessness, surprising given Kathak's grounded nature.
The program also included "Dandiya Dance" (2008), a playful percussive romp with Ethnic Dance Theatre. This work, coupled with the rest of the evening's thoughtful selections, served as a strong reminder of how widely Mustaphi has shared her vision. She has grown as an artist over the past quarter-century -- and she has helped others to do the same.