Irving — Dallas’s own Sunaina Rao starred as the lead in Meet Me on the Meadow, the glittery collaboration between Akhila Rao, director of the Dallas-based Kathak dance company Kathak Rhythms, and Anita Kulkarni, artistic director of the New Jersey-based foundation for the arts Renu.
Meet Me at the Meadow is an impressive multi-media spectacle that brings together Kathak dance, original poetry, music and vocals, paintings, and 90 minutes of graphic projections that appear on a large panel behind the dancers — all while accompanied by a light show that reflects the narrative arc. Kathak, a classical dance form that originated among traveling bards in Northern India, is an Indian style of musical theater. Dancers use poetry, startlingly realistic mime, and specific facial expressions to tell stories. The movement itself is characterized by whiplashing turns, rhythmic footwork, and elements of lyrical acting to support the narrative. Sunday’s performance told a story of love between a young man and woman, whose tale of separation and reunion was explicitly compared to the classical story of Krishna and Radha. The Kathak ballet was choreographed by Akhila Rao and written, directed, and produced by Anita Kulkarni, who also provided the music, paintings, and poetry to accompany the dancers on stage.
The evening began with a short segment entitled “Glimpses,” in which Kulkarni narrated an abbreviated version of the story as Akhila Rao demonstrated corresponding mime movements. Glimpses was supposed to aid audience members in interpreting the Kathak ballet, but, as it turned out, the dancers’ mime during the performance was so precise that that segment was hardly necessary, though it was worth watching Rao perform her own choreography on stage.
Led by Sunaina Rao, Akhila’s daughter and dancer at Kathak Rhythms, as the female protagonist, and Anurag Sharma, a Minneapolis-based Kathak performer, as the male lead, the besotted pair was accompanied by a corps of eight dancers from Kathak Rhythms. The story began with a pastoral encounter between the lovers on a meadow, where they interacted surrounded by butterflies, flowers, and leafy trees — all elements that they managed to adeptly describe through hand movements and dramatic gestures. The blissful unity is abruptly cut short when the man left his lover behind, apparently to battle a series of demons that took him on a cosmic journey. The woman is left searching for his whereabouts. At the point the plot became murkier and more difficult to follow, especially since the reasons for the man’s departure bordered on upholding gender roles that could use some refreshing.
Despite the haziness of the second half of the plot, Sunaina Rao gave a masterful performance. Her facial expressions, her dramatic movements, and her precise mime set her apart as an actor as she conveyed exact moods and plots points. It was her mesmerizing and ever quicker footwork that revealed her talent as a dancer. The musicality of her footwork amplified the score. The quality of her performance was roundly appreciated by audience members, who broke into applause repeatedly after watching the light sparkle off her jewelry as she completed sequences of dizzying turns.
Although Sharma’s facial expressions matched Rao’s in quality, I found myself wishing that he had held poses and mime movements longer than he did. His movements sometimes appeared incomplete, dropped before I had had time to absorb their meaning and aesthetic.
The 8-person corps of female dancers, members of Kathak Rhythms, also added to the evening in an important way. Not only their configurations on stage but also – and even more notably — their extended mime scenes demonstrated Akhila Rao’s skill as a Kathak choreographer for whom narration is as critical to the work as movement itself. One scene of the corps playing at the banks of a river was particularly compelling and realistic.
Throughout the entire production, a graphic display ran continually behind the dancers. At times the display even projected images of another cast of dancers, who appeared to move behind the live performers. At times I found the display distracting. In the first half, many of the images were original paintings, depicting the pastoral scenes where the action was supposed to take place, but a multi-part dance sequence at the end of the evening was accompanied by a cosmic scene of streaking stars on screen, which I thought detracted from the exciting allegro sections that were display on stage. The production was also accompanied by recorded poetry, a feature that aided audience comprehension of the plot but was sometimes jarring from the house.
Still, despite the fact that there were occasionally too many elements at work simultaneously, the sheer amount of work that must have gone into the production was notable. It’s rare to see a multi-media event that includes 90 full minutes of poetry, original choreography, visual arts and lighting, and a glittering array of costumes. Meet Me in the Meadow goes on tour in North America in 2020, and it’s worth seeing purely to appreciate the amount of creative muscle behind it. But it’s Sunaina Rao’s performance that makes it a real pleasure.