UPDATE: We’re thrilled to share that Shaamya – Of Equality was named one of the top 10 Twin Cities dance performances in 2021 by the Minneapolis Star Tribune! We’re so honored to be included among these talented dance artists. Read the entire list here.
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Crystal, MN – Katha Dance Theatre (KDT) has announced the world premiere of Shaamya – Of Equality, their latest collaboration with composer J.D. Steele. The event will take place at the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN on November 19 – 21, 2021. It is choreographed by Rita Mustaphi, KDT’s Artistic Director, and features original poetic contributions from artist and playwright Ifrah Mansour.
Inspired by the poetry of writer and activist Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976), Of Equality attempts to draw parallels between the experiences of today’s communities of color and those expressed by Nazrul Islam back in the early 20th century. Using a mixture of dance, music, and spoken word poetry, it juxtaposes past and present fights for racial, cultural and gender equity.
Through his writing and activism, Nazrul Islam shared his anger about and attempted to find solutions to various forms of oppression. By enacting his ideas decades after his death, Of Equality demonstrates that this great writer’s work is relevant to today’s artistic and political climates, transcending time and place.
With her choreography, Rita Mustaphi aims to seamlessly blend the various cultural and thematic ideas at play into a cohesive dance piece incorporating traditional Kathak idioms. Of Equality is just one in a long line of original works choreographed by Rita over the course of KDT’s three-decade history. Her work’s quality speaks for itself, having won her three McKnight Fellowships for choreography, a 2011 Lifetime Achievement award from the India Association of Minnesota, a 2012 Education award from the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, and a 2021 Nari Shakti Award for Women’s Empowerment from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.
Equality will be set to a live rendition of original compositions by Twin Cities musical legend J.D. Steele, with whom KDT previously collaborated back in 2013 on the critically acclaimed Karna – The Abandoned Hero. Steele, an accomplished musician who has performed with Prince, Mavis Staples, and others, will be accompanied by pianist Billy Steele and vocalist Jevetta Steele, as well as drum artist Abhinav Sharma. J.D. Steele’s compositions include elements of North Indian, East African and African American musical styles. They were also inspired by taals, which are rhythm cycles used in North Indian classical music and dance. His intent as composer is for all of these elements to unify in support of the dancers’ performance.
Equality will also include written contributions by Somali poet and playwright Ifrah Mansour, who will perform the poem “I am a Refugee” onstage alongside Mustaphi and Steele. Mansour is perhaps best known for her autobiographical play How to Have Fun in a Civil War, which details her memories of her childhood in war-torn Somalia.
Contributions from dancers of multiethnic backgrounds will fill out the show, including ballet, flamenco, tap, and hip-hop. Incorporating cross-cultural artistic and narrative elements within a classical Indian dance performance is in keeping with Rita Mustaphi’s mission to expand upon the Kathak tradition while preserving its authenticity and cultural integrity.
The premiere comes following a 2020 work-in-progress showing at Minneapolis’s Southern Theater.
Shaamya – Of Equality. November 19 – 21, $16-30, 80 minutes, Park Square Theatre, Historic Hamm Building, 20 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul, 55102. Tickets are available here.
*Please note that anyone who enters the Park Square is asked to be masked at all times, and all audience members are required to either show proof of vaccination or a negative test result within 72 hours of the performance to be admitted.*
November 19: 7:30 pm
November 20: 7:30 pm
November 21: 2 pm | American sign language (ASL); post-show discussion
About Katha Dance Theatre
Katha Dance Theatre (KDT) creates, performs and educates through the art forms of dance, music, poetry and storytelling. Rooted in Kathak, the classical dance style of Northern India, KDT is dedicated to making dance accessible, inclusive and relevant. It enhances the local community by bridging diverse cultures and audiences to contribute to life’s infinite artistic expressions.
About Kathak Dance
Kathak (pronounced “Kah-tahk”) is an Indian classical dance tradition native to North India. Its origins can be traced back to as early as 400 BCE, when it began as a form of sharing stories, myths, and Hindu scripture in temples and royal courts. Characterized by both rhythmic and lyrical elements, it features graceful hand gestures, pirouettes, and complex footwork, performed with expressiveness and precision. Over the centuries, it has grown to incorporate diverse influences and viewpoints with KDT at the forefront of its artistic evolution.
About Kazi Nazrul Islam
Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) was a Bengali writer, musician and activist whose advocacy for India’s economic and social independence from Britain solidified his reputation as “the rebel poet.” Apart from addressing socio-political issues through writing and protest, his work also touched on themes of natural beauty, romantic love, and humanity’s right to freedom and autonomy. He was also prolific, having written thousands of poems and songs during his lifetime. Today, Kazi Nazrul Islam is officially known as the national poet of Bangladesh.
This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov. It is also supported by a grant from St. Paul’s Cultural STAR program. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. Shaamya – Of Equality was supported by New Music USA. To follow the project as it unfolds, visit my project page. It is also made possible by funding from the RBC foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the Target Foundation, the A.B. Walker Foundation, and by the generosity of KDT’s individual donors.
Katha Dance Theatre is a dance company and school run by some of the country’s finest Kathak artists. Our instructors are passionate about Kathak tradition and have worked hard to reach their level of expertise, practicing daily in order to develop their skills. But apart from regular practice, what does it take to make a dancer? In our dancers’ experience, learning from inspiring teachers plays a huge role in helping artists achieve their professional goals.
In our series Spotlight on the Teacher, we’re checking in with our talented dance teachers – learning about their origins, the development of their teaching style, their goals for their students, and more – in order to better understand their individual approaches to teaching, dancing, and practicing their art. This month, our spotlight shines on KDT founder, instructor, and artistic director Rita Mustaphi.
What is your dance background, both in terms of your training and your professional experience?
Dance came to me through a health issue that I had in my childhood. I was diagnosed with rickets – that is, a softening and weakening of the bones – and one of the treatments that the pediatrician recommended was exercise. My father noticed that I naturally move in front of mirrors, and he appointed a dance teacher to come to our home three days a week and teach me to dance. I was constantly prancing around the house, the garden, and the park, which inspired my father to enroll me in a formal dance school, the Institute of Indian Dance and Culture. Once I graduated from there, my natural progression was to move up to Rabindra Bharati University of Performing Arts in Kolkata for advanced training.
My first year there, I was introduced to four kinds of Indian classical dance styles – namely, Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kathakali and Manipuri. My natural affiliation was with Kathak, so I chose to follow that style. Eventually, I graduated with distinction in Kathak! But that did not stop my aspiration to learn more. My love of Kathak inspired me to join Padatik Dance Center in Kolkata and learn Kathak from Pandit Vijai Shankar, a disciple of Pandit Birju Maharaj, the legendary guru of Kathak dance. I had seen Maharaj-ji perform Kathak and was mesmerized, but never had the opportunity to learn from him until that time.
I later moved to the U.S., eventually establishing Katha Dance Theatre in 1987. In 1988, I had the opportunity to bring the king of Kathak himself, Padma Vibhushan Pandit Birju Maharaj, to Minnesota! Impressed by my skill as a dancer, he extended his trip and asked me to study with him at Kathak Kendra in New Delhi. I made several long trips to Delhi, India for that reason. I also feel very fortunate to be associated with Pandit Birju Maharaj, who not only taught me Kathak, but also inspired me to create dance of my own.
Now, I am a choreographer, dancer and educator who has been creating professional work, performing, touring, teaching and conducting outreach activities for 32 years.
Who and/or what have been your biggest inspirations as a teacher?
Being around young people inspires me the most! I look at teaching as a kind of performing, but better! Students are your audience that can learn from, interact with, and observe you for an extended period of time. My reward is when I watch a student’s progression from learning in childhood to teaching at KDT’s School! Teaching is a practice of bonding with people of any age and it has been crucial to deepening my ability to bond with KDT teachers, performers, KDT school parents, audience members, fellow artists and more. What a gift it is to share what I know with others!
“The look of enlightenment on the face of a student who tries what you suggest and finds success is wonderful. To me, that is what teaching is all about.”
How would you describe your teaching style?
A melding of the different teachers has influenced me. I believe that solid teaching must start slow, beginning with a simple ritual of respecting the space, the teacher and audience members, followed by detail and thorough warm-up, and finally teaching technique while emphasizing every age-specific detail I can offer my students. As my own training was culture-specific, thorough and detail-oriented, I offer the same to all my students. I offer tools to dancers who are later able to perform, create and teach if they choose to do so. My motto is also that of KDT: “Dance. Discover. Transform.”
Since I am the founder and artistic director of Katha Dance Theatre and School, I set the standard for its school, company, tour and outreach programs. All teachers follow the same syllabus that I learned from Guru Pandit Birju Maharaj.
What do you hope your students take away from your class?
A feeling of joy and exhilaration in finding new ways to approach their movement. I also hope they take away a bit more knowledge and appreciation of Asian Indian art and culture, a passion for dance, and acknowledgement of the commitment it takes to learn.
Do you have any key phrases or expressions you often use in your classes?
“Where the hands go, the eyes should follow
Where the eyes go, the mind should follow
Where the mind goes, the emotions are generated
Where the emotions are generated, sentiment arises.”
A good dancer needs to provoke audience sentiment by following the essence of this verse. I feel it not only applies to dance, but also to every action in our daily lives. It means that if our hearts are present where our heads and hands are working, the outcome is outstanding.
What do you love most about teaching? And what’s the hardest part about your job?
I love to have students who are focused and hard-working in class; absorbing the information and participating in the process. The look of enlightenment on the face of a student who tries what you suggest and finds success is wonderful. To me, this is what teaching is all about. Teaching is hardest when you have a dancer disrupting class with talkative, uncooperative and disrespectful behavior day after day. Initially, I take this as a challenge and try to improve that student’s behavior in several different ways, but if I’m unsuccessful, I inform their guardian/s to rectify the issue and possibly even choose another activity for them.
What advice do you have for other dance teachers who wish to make an impression on their students?
Try to approach your class with the knowledge that students are coming from all walks of life, and try to find the right approach for everyone. Remember that sometimes what works for one student may not work for another, even though the end goal is the same.
Thank you to TPT and MN Original for featuring us in your 4/20/17 episode! Per their description: “Founder of Katha Dance Theatre Rita Mustaphi gives historical and contemporary context to Kathak dance, the ancient North Indian Classical dance form.”
Click here to view the lesson plan that goes along with the video clip.