Arts & Events

AROUND AND ABOUT THE PERFORMING ARTS: Ethnic Dance Festival to Honor the Kunhiramans of Berkeley's Kalanjali, Dances of India; Notes on Theatre of Yugen's 'This Lingering Life;' Opera Updates

Ken Bullock
Friday June 13, 2014 - 06:56:00 PM

—The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival announced at the end of February a unique series of performances for Saturday June 14 at 7 p. m. at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to mark the occasion of a rare and well-deserved celebration of artistic purpose—and endurance—in both performance and education: all eight Indian classical dance styles (Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Manipuri, Mohiniyattam, Kathakali, Sattiriya) performed for the first time together on an American stage, celebrating the award of the Malonga Casquelourd Award to K. P. and Katherine Kunhiraman, who since 1975 have performed and taught Bharatanatyam and Kathakali, as well as other dances, through their Kalanjali, Dances of India troupe and school in Berkeley. 

And it was announced that Kunhiraman, who had retired to India a couple years ago, while Katherine continued running Kalanjali here, would return for the award and perform Kathakali for the first time in years on the Festival stage as part of the celebration. 

Kunhiraman himself has been a rare figure for these days: a second-generation Kathakali actor, master of a classical dance theater tradition of South India that goes back centuries, characterized by all-night performances of stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana mythic cycles, by the make-up (often taking hours to apply backstage), familiar to many from photographs and travel posters of green-hued dancers with tall gold crowns making great leaps ... 

Kunhiraman was said to be excited by the award and the opportunity to perform again—the only previous time Kathakali was performed at the Festival was at the first one in 1978, by the Kunhiramans. 

But this week's news was somber: Kunhiraman, 84, was suddenly taken ill—and died in a hospital at Chennai, where Katherine had flown to be with him. 

The show will go on, and the award, presented by Indian Consul General Nagesh Pathasarathi, will be accepted by the Kunhiramans' longtime student, fellow performer and friend Barbara Framm, herself a teacher of Bharatanatyam, maybe best-known in Berkeley for her ongoing involvement with the Himalayan Fair. She will convey Katherine Kunhiraman's greetings and reminiscences—and the Kunhiramans' niece and collaborator, Yeshoda, will display the ancient crown Kunhiraman inherited from his father and wore in performance. 

The Kunhiramans first met during the 60s at Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai, Rukmini Devi Arundale's performing arts institute, where Kunhiraman taught and performed and Katherine—from an American family living in India—was a student. When they came to Berkeley to found Kalanjali, South Indian classical music and dance were little known in comparison to different North Indian styles. For years the Kunhiramans persevered, their reputation spreading as their students became performers and teachers, and with the immigration of more South Indians to the Bay Area, finally realizing recognition and success regionally—and beyond. Bharatanatyam, like ballet in the West or Nihon Buyo (Kabuki dance) in Japan, is commonly taught to girls and young women of South India as part of their education. The Kunhiramans presided over countless aurangetrams, the debut performance marking the completion of dance courses, for students of many nationalities. 

An account of the Kunhiramans by an old friend, with Katherine Kunhiraman's remarks, from an Indian journal in English this week: 

The Ethnic Dance Festival, featuring 31 dance companies with over 300 dancers and musicians, weekends through June 29, Yerba Buena center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street (between 4th & 3rd Streets), San Francisco. $18-$58. (415) 978-2787; 

—"I must be the narrator!" So the Woman With Tragic Hair (Jubilith Moore) realizes her real—that is, theatrical—karma, in a play about karma that appropriates the stories of nine Noh plays from the classical Japanese repertory, turning them over as more-or-less modern, vignettes from life: two men, standing at a bus stop, listening to a beggar woman raving; a gardener, raking a sand garden, overtaken by a vision of beauty that turns out to be a spoiled, cruel rich girl; a young warrior from the past who won't believe he's been dead for centuries, repeating over and over the circumstances of his demise ... 

Theatre of Yugen's production of Chiori Miyagawa's play, 'This Lingering Life,' also directed by Moore and featuring an excellent cast of eight other Yugen company members, as well as collaborators who have trained with them in the rigorous physical style of Noh (Sheila Berotti, Sheila Devitt, Nick Ishimuru, Hannah Lennett, Alexander Lydon, Ryan Marchand, Norman Muñoz, Lluis Valls), is precisely a triumph of theatrical collaboration and ensemble performance, what the performers, director and designers have brought to Miyagawa's script, from Mikiko Uesugi's enormous but ethereal cube of a set, drawn in the air by hanging lines held in place by gently swaying pendulums, backed by an actual tree in leaf (inspired by the pine tree painted on the back wall of Noh stages)llen Willner, with a wide array of costumes by Callie Floor for the 28 characters and props by Sheila Berotti and Sheila Devitt—and Michael Gardiner seated onstage, working a computer to produce his very apt scoring and sound design for the action. 

It's particularly a triumph for Theatre of Yugen, celebrating 35 years of performing and training in the traditional forms of Noh and Kyogen, demanding an ensemble style of performance, whether for traditional plays or adapted modern and contemporary ones, especially after the very short run of 'Emmett Till, a river,' also directed by Moore, which premiered a few months ago and showed the same fine directorial style emerging, synthesizing "fusion" material and realization into a single vision onstage. 

Miyagawa's script of synthesizing contiguous, sometimes intersecting or echoing stories, taps into a tradition in the West that begins with works like C. D. Grabbe's 'Don Juan and Faust' (1828), a favorite of Kierkegaard''s, and better-known masterworks like Ibsen's 'Peer Gynt' and Strindberg's 'A Dream Play' and 'The Gost Sonata,' with touches of humor and anachronism out of the old burlesque or farce melodrama and screwball comedy traditions that influenced film and television, from Tod Browning's 'Dracula' and Howard Hawks' films to those of Quentin Tarantino, as well as the Fractured Fairy Tales cartoons from Rocky & His Friends—and maybe a dash of Sam Shepard, including his taste for the false naive and a touch of banality. 

The last performance of, unfortunately, a two-week run is at 8, Saturday, June 14, at Z Space (formerly Theatre Artaud), 450 Florida Street (near Harrison & 17th), in San Francisco's Mission District. $15-$50. 

—There are still tickets for Cinnabar Theater's production of the great Mozart/Da Ponte opera 'The Marriage of Figaro,' staged in Cinnabar's intimate hilltop theater in Petaluma—a rarity; they usually sell out. But it closes this weekend. Friday and Saturday, 8; Sunday at 2.3333 Petaluma Boulevard North, Petaluma. $25-$40. or (707) 763-8920 

... and a studio production of Lisa Schola Prosek's opera from Berkeley (and Big Sur) author Jaime De Angulo's novella of the encounter of a Spanish priest with Indian magic in Carmel and in the Sur highlands, featuring collaboration with Esselen Indians on the libretto and an Essalen soprano, will be for one night only, next Saturday the 21st, 7 p. m., at the Unscripted Theater, 533 Sutter (between Powell & Mason), downtown San Francisco. $15.