We all know how hard it is to interpret someone else’s words, thoughts, and actions…especially when that person is from a different country with different mores and norms…It is even harder when, one is asked again to form their own interpretations of the first ones! That seemed to be the task at hand at the final night of the musical, “Conference of the Birds”, a joint production of Enacte Arts and Sangam Arts last weekend at the Mexican Heritage Plaza.
This musical is based on a celebrated Sufi poem, written in Persian by the poet, Far dud Din Attar. In her opening remarks, Usha Srinivasan, of Sangam Arts revealed the complex layering of the piece where the birds may not be of the same feather, but when they flock together they can soar.
The very complex tale was pieced together as a series of dances depicting the flight of a flock of diverse birds as they journey to discover their king, interspersed with myriad story-telling. Hoopoe, the wise leader bird seeks to bring peace among the birds of the world and claims that “a bird with a lion’s heart can make the trip”. She suggests they look for the legendary Simorgh, roughly equivalent to the Western Phoenix, as their king.
The long journey with seven lakes to cross requires the birds to look within their hearts to continue onwards when they cite their frail abilities. Only thirty birds endure the grueling journey, at the end of which they are faced with a lake which mirrors their own reflection. Thus, ends the search for the legend, and begins the search for the truth within.
The ambitious production was put together with heart and hands, the passion, dedication, commitment of each member involved, whether on stage or back stage was apparent. The statistics themselves deserve applause….10 choreographers, 30 dancers representing diverse dance styles, 15 actors aged 5-84, the musical composer, Randy Armstrong, the dance director, Antara Bharadwaj who joined hands with Vinita Belani and Usha Srinivasan from the producing organizations, clearly felt empowered at accomplishing the narration of a Persian, Sufi tale as a dance musical.
The layering of dance, music, acting, gelled very well to stimulate the senses and present pleasing images on stage; the changing backdrops and lighting and sound worked very well with the technical mastery of movement of the birds’ journey. The most impressive aspect, of course was the carefully curated costumes, unrelenting attention to detail of stance and movements that transformed each dancer into the bird they represented as a total persona. The flock, present together on stage for most of the duration of the play was pure joy to watch, as they strutted, glided, swam, bobbed and dipped about in characteristic bird movements and sounds.
The Chinese dancers depicting the peacocks, regal in their iridescent, swaying tails; the partridges belly dancingtheir way; the Samoan ducks bobbing and gyrating; the Mexican folkloric herons resplendent in their elegance; the African Macaws impressive in their stature; the cute, childlike sparrows; and the rigid Russian falcon were brilliantly cast and coached in their roles, along with the nightingales who charmed with their romantic antics.
This production was marketed to the hilt, setting high expectations from the get go, and it is creditable that majority of those expectationswere met with excellence of the production as a whole. Getting immersed in someone else’s storytelling requires trust, and the birds displayed that in unison, with extraordinary results. At various instances during the journey of the birds, the stage was transformed into a glorious cacophony of the feathered creatures in their gorgeous and varied hues. A particularly memorable moment was the rising of the Phoenix, cleverly executed with the addition of a little Phoenix at the climax!
The audience reaction that I captured ranged from “Outstanding”, “enjoyable”, “colorful” at one end of the spectrum, to “confusing”, “dragging”, ” unclear” at the other end of it. As I pondered the disparate experiences related to me, I began wondering about how one even begins to get into another’s mind to represent in their own art form the thoughts of another. It is routinely done, of course in plays, music and dance forms as stories written by others are narrated. The challenge here was also to take a lyrical poem, layered with nuanced meanings and transform it into dramatic and musical theater.
In this case, I concluded that the abstract message, while universal, was depicted through some very specific stories interspersed with the dance numbers that were sometimes hard to follow.
One such story was the scene with the dervish and his beard….while the story was clear, it lacked a connection with the audience. This production perhaps had an overdose of narration, when the narrator happened to be the leader bird, Hoopoe, and remained focused on the audience that she narrated to, rather than with her flock.
Lack of fluidity between some scene changes hampered transitions in storytelling, however, the dance interludes showing the changing journey were superbly delivered. Where there was a bit of a gap between expectations was the whole did not seem to be bigger than the sum of its parts; somehow the components retained their jigsaw feel. The parts, as components were extremely enjoyable, however, the entirety lacked the expected punch.
Usha of Sangam Arts has always produced stellar results in her curation of dance forms and dancers from the various Bay Area companies, and did not disappoint. Vinita of Enacte Arts, has also delivered tall orders in the variety of quality productions offered thus far. The duo has much to be proud of, and their attempt at undertaking a project of this magnitude must be lauded. Exceptional music by Randy Armstrong that sets the desired mood must be commended, as should the connection to the greater community where actors of all ages and ethnicities were enthusiastically brought under one roof to create harmony among the cacophony of the conference!