Confessions and Calculations

by Leigh Witchel

“I struggle with English,” Preeti Vasudevan told us in perfect English. In many ways that was a metaphor for “Stories by Hand”: there was a story we were told, and told with skill and assurance. But there was another story in front of us – and they didn’t always match up.

Vasudevan began as a bharatanatyam performer and expanded into Western contemporary performance. She collaborated for this project with writer and digital artist Paul Kaiser. The show benefited from a spare, stripped down production: a bench on a bare stage, with squares marked off.

The whole production had that meticulous, analytical division. There were four pages of program notes, including a flow chart of the divisions and relationships of the stories.

The show started when the lights went up on the bench. You could make out Vasudevan in the dim light, but in an optical illusion created by her hands and palms tapping together, you couldn’t tell if she was facing towards us or away. It turned out her palms were stretched all the way behind her back.

She sang to us, a song of a marriage between gods, Rama and Sita, and then Vasudevan spoke to us in her neat English. And for her that neatness is the struggle. “English is my cerebral language, Tamil is my body language.” English was taught to her in a convent school in India, along with the other virtues to make a good bride: singing, dancing, speaking English well . . .

Large chunks of the piece were in Tamil. For those of us who only understood English, Tamil was a cascade in rhythmic rapid-fire of sounds both labial and glottal, with the occasional English word peppering the Tamil. Vasudevan nimbly made the leap from Tamil to the rhythmic bols that provide a vocal score for bharatanatyam. She used bharatanatyam sparingly, performing some basic combinations in silence so we could see them clearly.

Vasudevan curled her hands into the mime gestures of classical Indian dance – mudras. “I don’t struggle when I speak to you with my hands.” And yet mudras are not a universal language any more than ballet mime is. You have to know the code. Vasudevan went into a narrative, showing how she would illustrate a woman (pinched fingers near the chest, holding the stem of a flower) asking a man (the thumb up, symbolizing a mountain peak) to come to her, showing us the intricacies and subtleties of the language, but also in an imperious, clipped tone, her right as the narrator of the story to control it.

After explaining the symbols for family relationships, Vasudevan spoke of daily visits in India to her grandfather, feeding him. As she spoke, only her hands were illuminated. And yet, without words, the hands made no sense.

Later on, she sat down and spoke of the process of making up her face to perform, with one eye featureless, the other one fully decorated and “exotic.” She told of working with New York City Ballet principal Amar Ramasar. When she faced him with one eye open, she was looking into his soul “and he was looking into mine.”  Yet at that moment you couldn’t feel either soul – only the neat symmetry of the story. The same thing happened earlier when Vasudevan described finding out that when her grandfather grabbed her hand so tightly she had to pry herself free, he was suffering a fatal heart attack. His death seemed so much more distant than the mechanics of revealing it.

Preeti Vasudevan in “Stories by Hand.” Photo © Maria Baranova

Vasudevan created a simplified version of a rangoli, a design created on the floor from rice flour, in the shape of a stylized eye. In a nod to her Laban training, with hand prints on her shirt from the powder, she described 27 points in space but made it Indian: “In eight of these points live the gods.”

She stepped into the design, her hands shaking in an incantation to drums, then she did a simpler dance leaving trails of white – the powder as her partner. There were two women who silently moved props as stagehands, but then one brought her water like a household servant. Vasudevan talked about her young daughter’s expectation of what a new home would be like, once her family moved out of their beautiful but too small “dollhouse” apartment in Manhattan.

About ten minutes before the end of “Stories by Hand” the narrative took an unexpected turn, to the horrifying story of a relative who shot his entire family, then committed suicide. The story was real; there are contemporary accounts of the tragedy. It was morbidly fascinating to see the difference between what Vasudevan saw as the cause (emptiness, depression) versus the stories of the time (the financial crisis of 2008). As much as horrifying events such as this come out of nowhere in real life, in a show as carefully planned as this one, it felt manipulative.

Vasudevan described the murders with the same elegant precision as the coffins of different sizes, and the cremation of the bodies. There was a funeral chant, and then once again the chant of Sita and Rama – the ideal marriage.

Vasudevan was stymied by the crafting of “Stories by Hand” the same way as her precise English. She’s extremely able, but ability can be a hazard. Vasudevan got caught up in the correctness of the effort, and the calculation showed. For all the skill and intellect Vasudevan and her collaborators poured into “Stories by Hand,” the end result felt distant and chilly.

Copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Stories by Hand” – Preeti Vasudevan
New York Live Arts, New York, NY
November 2, 2017

Cover: Preeti Vasudevan in “Stories by Hand.” Photo © Maria Baranova

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