Kathak dancer Seema Mehta collaborates with Emmy-winning American tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith for Rhythm Rewritten
We meet Jersey City-based tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith (37) at kathak dancer Seema Mehta’s (40) Napean Sea Road residence. He greets us with a “Namaskar” proving that this is not his first trip to India. He toured the length and breadth of the country with the late kathak legend Chitresh Das for a decade (2005 to 2015) as part of India Jazz Suites (titled Fastest Feet in Rhythm in India). It was a performance where kathak met tap dance and was largely unchoreographed. “I didn’t know anything about Indian culture till I met Chitresh da. Through our conversations, watching him dance, over meals, I learnt a lot more,” says Smith.
He is now collaborating with Das’s disciple, Mehta (she runs Chhandam Nritya Bharati, a school of kathak in Mumbai) to present Rhythm Rewritten, a spontaneous performance similar to India Jazz Suites.
Tap and kathak may belong to different countries and cultures (tap is rooted in the African-American community), but both rely on elaborate footwork. While Mehta and Smith rehearse to music to get the rhythm and beats right (Sabir Khan on tabla, Jayanta Banerjee on sitar, among others), their movements are largely unchoreographed and spur of the moment. Each artist reacts to the moves of the other — a chakkar by Mehta is followed by a jump click (clicking of the heel taps together) by Smith. Towards the end, the movements gain in pace and create a surreal visual experience.
“Every performance is a fresh one; no one knows what is going to happen, including the artists. We have to improvise,” he says, adding, “During the performance, I play/react to the musicians, the audience, to my fellow dancer... I want to challenge everyone. Your heart should be in your mouth,” says Smith.
Smith started learning tap dance from the age of seven. His mother, a jazz dancer, enrolled Smith for tap dance classes to keep him out of trouble. “I grew up in Manhattan, better known as Hell’s Kitchen, in the ’80s and ’90s. It was rough; you could be robbed anywhere and there were drug dealers and prostitutes in the neighbourhood. Dance gave me a lot of confidence and was my tool for survival,” says Smith, adding that it helped him battle his speech impediment as well.
Smith went on to perform on Broadway and won an Emmy at the age of 23 (2004) for outstanding choreography in the opening number of a Jerry Lewis/MDA Telethon tribute to American actor and dancer Gregory Hines. “My mom keeps it as a statue in her apartment in New York,” jokes Smith, who aspires to win a Grammy for choreography.
Unlike Smith, Mehta’s initiation into dance happened in her twenties. “I grew up in Antwerp, Belgium and California, USA, and later moved to India. At the age of 21, I saw a performance by Chitresh Das and I became his disciple,” she recalls, adding that she met Smith while helping organise editions of India Jazz Suites.
Mehta and Smith’s vision is to build a bridge between the two disciplines and attract a newer audience to it. “Both of the art forms are in a similar place. They had humble beginnings and stand on great foundations. But they are no longer for the people who created it and they struggle to appeal to a younger generation. When they do see it, they are blown away but it is not so readily accessible to everyone,” says Smith.
Rhythm Rewritten — Kathak Meets Tap will be performed on January 21, 7pm
At Tata Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point
Call 6622 3737
Tickets: Rs 625 onwards, available on bookmyshow.com