Photos: Ali Thanawalla/SFBay
With dazzling grace and contagious exuberance, Cimeron Ahluwalia swirled and pounded across the Brava Theater’s cramped stage Sunday evening to the delight of an enraptured audience.
Dancing alone to the music of an on-stage band — with none other than her guru Pandit Chitresh Das sitting in on tabla — Ahluwalia delivered her “Parampara” Kathak solo with confidence, power and a splash of signature humor.
Ahluwalia is one of a young generation of Kathak dancers emerging into their own identities with force, grace and individuality.
For the uninitiated, Kathak Indian classical dance — particularly the flavor embraced by Pandit Chitresh Das and his Chhandam School of Kathak— is one of the most difficult, complex and ultimately beautiful physical expressions any of our world’s collective cultures have put forth. A combination of unique physical, rhythmic and improvisational elements make learning Kathak a supremely intense life-long effort.
Das continues to perform vigorously around the world, as he has for decades. His India Jazz Suites — an ongoing collaboration with tap sensation and renaissance performer in his own right Jason Samuels Smith — stands as one of modern dance’s most colorful and prodigious mashups.
Since Kathak takes decades to learn and is never truly mastered, it takes time for fresh generation of disciples to emerge from schools launched and led by their guruji in the 1990s. Culminating years of training and discipline, a traditional solo is a capstone performance for Kathak dancers in training.
On stage, covered from neck to ankle in a thick, brightly-colored traditional blue swirling dress, Ahluwalia sailed through a challenging program with Das watching from just feet away onstage. Punctuated by breathless explanation — an essential element of Kathak solo — Ahluwalia guided a loud, engaged audience along a 90-minute storytelling voyage.
Amid smoothly flowing movement and precise rhythmic expression, Ahluwalia thrilled the crowd with charmingly subtle — and not so subtle — eye and eyebrow movements so famously used by Das for decades to electrify audiences.
Ahluwalia’s vivid retelling of Kaliya Daman — the story of young, playful Krishna slaying the demonic evil serpent Kaliya along the Yamuna River — could just as well be Ahluwalia’s tale of personal demons being slain.
Beginning at SF State, then at the Chhandam School, Ahluwalia overcame hardships and challenges far beyond dance over her decade-plus course of training. Neither a medical condition that drained her of her vitality, or knee surgery that threatened the intense but delicate movements demanded by Kathak, could keep Ahluwalia away from her long-time pursuit.
Half Sikh and half Armenian, Ahluwalia was joined by her parents onstage after a standing ovation. She told the supportive audience:
“Arts, music, dance, literature, they matter. I’m not the most traditional person in the world. But I do hold the values of traditional art. And it’s very important in this day and age to keep those traditions. We can still listen to Usher, you know I do.”
Das, surrounded onstage by Chhandam Executive Director Celine Schein and family, told a glimmering Ahluwalia:
“All this power, from the parents. The first guru is the mother. The second guru is the father. The third guru is you!”
Jesse Garnier is the editor and founder of SFBay. A Mission District native, he also teaches journalism as associate professor at San Francisco State University.