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For the third year, the American Dance Festival has included in its schedule a program devoted to rhythm-based dance forms, and this year's offering is the most successful yet. It brings the return of the marvelous tapper Jason Saumels Smith and the virtuoso North Indian classical dancer Pandit Chitresh Das, master and innovator of Kathak dance. Accompanying them for a boundary-busting evening of collaboration and improv are three extremely fine Indian classical musicians and Durham's own John Hanks Trio. If you just want to have a really good time — and maybe renew your belief that "we-e-e-e can live to-geth-er" — hightail it to Page Auditorium to see these two beaming men not only dance to the music but make it, with their feet.
Smith is an utterly charming performer who comes sauntering and whistling to the stage from the auditorium to open the show with a little skit about how the two dancers met, backstage at ADF 2004. Smith was practicing — and heard an echo, which turned out to be a 60-year-old, barefoot Indian in five-pound ankle bracelets imitating his riffs. Das' dance form has hundreds if not thousands of years on American tap dancing, and Das himself has several decades on Smith, but the two dancers and their styles have a great deal in common, and the two men have been exploring that commonality since their first meeting.
Both styles can be carefully choreographed or improvisatory, and we see samples of both in this program. On the 15th, the most exciting pieces had the dancers jamming, not just with each other, but with the musicians. Smith was stupendous, taking wonderful risks, with the John Hanks Trio's exploration of the jazz standard, "On Green Dolphin Street." In fact, the trio was the hottest that night that I've ever heard them. John Hanks' drums weren't just for percussion but were making whiskery, scuffing sounds and clicks; the ineffable Elmer Gibson on upright piano was totally in the moment, whether leading, following or getting out of the way; and when Ben Palmer on bass launched into a duet with Smith I nearly fell off my seat.
Das performed a series designed to demonstrate the range of Kathak, beginning with a traditional invocatory dance paying homage to Shiva. I am naturally more interested in Kathak than in tap because there is more to look at. Where in tap the arms are more often agents of balance than expression, in Kathak the arms, hands and entire upper body are used for a huge number of precise, meaningful gestures, some extremely subtle, and all graceful and sensuous. I find this vocabulary of gesture compelling, but more obviously amazing is Das' superb control. He can have his body parts going in multiple rapid rhythms — and stop on a pin head.
The program's second half includes a cute "Rap and Tap" piece, but the highlight of the evening puts both dancers and all the musicians on stage. Indian classical music is much more available in this area than it was even a few years ago, but it is still rare to hear it performed by such fine musicians. Abhijit Banerjee appeared with Das in 2004; his tablas are joined by the exquisite sarangi of Pandit Ramesh Mishra and the ringing sitar of Jayanta Banerjee. They are thrilling, and the mesh with the jazz trio was fantastic. With the dancers joining in, the eight made some righteous music, image-free, but so rich in textures and colors that the audience was gasping and cooing as if watching fireworks — fireworks of the feet.