On July 21st, I walked through Flax Art and Design to the Oakland Theater Project in anticipation of Ishami Dance Company’s first company production, Pehchaan. Entering the low lighting of the theater space, I took in the set design. Papers of different sizes hung on thin strings from the ceiling, floating and fluttering with the movement of the audience finding their seats. A projection looped on the back wall carrying the audience into the world of the show and introducing us to the performers.
As the performance began, the dancers told us their names, both how they pronounce their names and how others do so. Like so many of us in the diaspora, the performers narrate their inside and outside names - the pronunciation, the texture, the accented ways that they are referred to by family and close friends juxtaposed against the harsh interpretations of their names in the world outside of that circle. There is an angst in having to explain yourself over and over and over again through one of the most fundamental identifiers that we use. This set the audience up for the sections of the show that followed - Each section of the work highlighted an identity or constellation of identities that the performers hold in their bodies and explored it through the choreographed montages of solos, duets, and full ensemble vignettes.
Photographer: Rob Kunkle (Good Lux Photography), Dancer: Ishika Seth
I was particularly intrigued, as the piece went on, with how at the very center of the movement language in the work was a commitment to fusion, and not in a diminishing sense. Across the evening-length work, bollywood met hiphop, whacking met classical Indian dance, contemporary lyrical met heels choreography, all of which spoke to the tensions that arise being more than one thing at once. I’ve written in other places about the intercultural exchange that happens in the body when you live in the diaspora and have to navigate the many complexities of living in a third space. This show dives deep into those complexities, and takes them on not just from the standpoint of a diasporic identity. Instead, diaspora becomes the lens through which we see the performers grapple with queerness and motherhood, motherland and new home, tradition and assimilation. They do so with a goal of understanding themselves, and perhaps beyond that, giving the audience the opportunity to look inside and see who we are.
When I think about this performance in hindsight, I’m still considering how important the act of dreaming in public is for us. So much of the immigrant narrative flattens entire communities into singularities that cannot possibly be desired by all - the people we might make our lives with, the jobs we might have, the places we might live. But when we dream of being seen in our fullness in public ways, like in a performance, we provide the nuance to see that each performer’s american dream can look different. It can be a queer love story; it can be the desire for support as a new mother; it can be a longing for home; and it can be moving together in jubilation to celebrate that we see one another in our desires and longings.
Photographer: Rob Kunkle (Good Lux Photography); Dancers: Amit Patel and Akhil Joondeph
Pehchaan situates the variety of identities held by members of the ensemble - immigrant, queer, mother, dancer all came into relief through music, costume, and dance. With a tenderness and inquisitive nature to uncover what we haven’t seen yet about what we hold inside ourselves, this new ensemble brings forth generosity and creativity of spirit in a beautiful way. If I were to offer any critique to this lovely ensemble it would be that some parts of the performance felt like they were choreographed to the proscenium, and having sat on the side of the ¾ black box, I felt like I missed some of the details from my vantage point. Nevertheless, this show premiered July 21st-23rd, and I am looking forward to what is next for Ishami Dance Company.
Photographer: Rob Kunkle (Good Lux Photography) Dancers: Sanjana Kerketta, Ekta Doshi, and Nitika Bhatia