In 'Unedited,' the revisions are part of the tradition

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In 'Unedited,' the revisions are part of the tradition
In a photo provided by Whitney Browne shows, Rachna Nivas during a master class of cyclonic spins and amusing storytelling (pictured with, from left, Hindole Majumdar, Sonali Toppur, Abhik Mukherjee and Samarth Nagarkar). Risk and improvisation are integral to kathak, the Indian classical dance form on display in Rachna Nivas’s stunning solo performance at Dixon Place. Whitney Browne via The New York Times.

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK, NY.- For a dancer to explain, mid-show, that she has never before performed with her accompanying musicians — and that they have barely rehearsed — might seem like an excuse or an apology for roughness. But in her solo performance at Dixon Place on Thursday, Rachna Nivas said those words with pride.

The title of her show, after all, was “Unedited.” And such in-the-moment risk is part of the tradition of kathak, the Indian classical dance form to which she has devoted her life. She wasn’t making excuses. She was educating.

The show was a production of Leela Dance Collective, which Nivas helped found in 2016 with fellow disciples of kathak guru Chitresh Das. The collective, started in San Francisco, also runs a series of schools across the country. Nivas recently moved to New York to open an outpost here. At Dixon Place, local students danced an invocation, then they sat at Nivas’ feet as she gave them and the rest of the audience a master class. (A repeat performance that took place Saturday is available as a livestream.)

In the variable timing of her cyclonic spins and thrown poses, in the wit and mathematical wizardry of her bare feet and bell-ringed ankles, in her broad and amusing storytelling, precise enough to make the invisible palpable, she showed herself an expert in all sides of her art. And if the performance, her first in 20 months, was a little rougher than tradition endorses, she kept her composure, managing to turn wardrobe malfunctions, microphone trouble and miscommunications into teaching moments.

Some sound-level adjustments, for example, prompted an explanation of how, in kathak, the vocal recitation of rhythms is as important as the dancing of them. Some difficulty syncing with the musicians — who included virtuosic tabla drummer Hindole Majumdar — occasioned a quick exegesis on the differences between the rhythmic languages spoken by dancers and drummers, and on the instant translations required for them to converse.

This was all illuminating, the transparency heightening appreciation of skill and artistry. Such was also the effect of Nivas’ demonstration of kathak yoga, a training technique developed by her guru. Here, she sang and played a repeating seven-and-a-half-count melody on harmonium as her feet improvised an astonishing series of counter-rhythms. At the height of complexity, she added turns, like a drummer tossing her sticks into the air without losing the beat.

If kathak yoga seems a bit of stunt, Nivas explained the point: to push at the boundaries of the possible, to chase the receding edge of difficulty that requires a level of concentration akin to a meditative state.

The fruits of such discipline were evident throughout the show. My favorite moment was a brief danced poem about a king hunting for deer, repeatedly missing the target and getting distracted by a girl. In quick succession, Nivas conjured the sound of the king’s horse, the snap of his bow, the spring of the deer, the beauty of the girl. Her habit of scrunching her nose effectively mocked masculine self-importance, and in not much more than a minute, she showed what she had spoken about earlier: how a classical art survives.

A kathak solo show is also about other kinds of endurance, and by the end of the two-hour performance, Nivas looked tired. But she had given her students much to learn from and be proud of. And she had given a New York audience many reasons to be grateful that she’s here.

Leela Dance Collective

Performed at Dixon Place in Manhattan; streaming through Saturday at

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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