A review of Kumbi Kathawa

“The story of the ballet is simple, but carries a very timely message. It shows how an enemy should not discourage and weaken you, and how a common enemy like a natural disaster makes everyone dependent on each other. And finally it highlights the fact that you can even bring yourself to help your worst enemy, which reflects the ideology of all our main religions.”

Excerpt from Programme Notes of Kumbi Kathawa

It is a familiar lament amongst those who appreciate good theatre that there isn’t much of it around in Colombo. The commercial extravagance of productions with their celebrity casts often smears the stage with a debased theatre of worth only to the mercenary audience of corporate sponsorship. Kumbi Kathawa was different and how! It began with a sombre reminder, familiar to those of us who know the travails of the Chitrasena and Vajira Dance Foundation, that funds for the production of the play were incredibly hard to come by. This essential perversity of theatre sponsorship – in abundance for the mundane and ordinary at best and a paucity for the sublime – is not unique to Colombo, though one does notice that the phenomenon seems to be getting worse. It is inspiring then to see a quality of performance uncompromised by financial austerity and perhaps even tempered by such dire circumstances to be what it is. Kumbi Kathawa was not without its blemishes, but indubitably one of the best productions I have seen. This is especially significant considering that the ballet featured actors who ranged from 9 to over 35.

It was the costumes that largely riveted the attention of the audience. Photos quite simply don’t do them justice. I had the opportunity to see them up close when I sat through a rehearsal for the ballet a few weeks before it went on stage. They are incredibly detailed and imaginative, with designs inspired by the insects as well as African tribes. And if costumes were form, the content was in the movement of the characters on stage. The first we see of the ants was their brisk entry on to the stage – their movement incredibly detailed and performed to perfection, making it seem as if ants had really invaded the stage. Being a ballet, movement is everything and in Kumbi Kathawa we saw a huge range of insects ranging from ants, fire flies and grasshoppers to lady bugs and butterflies and others delight us with unique and impeccable movements rooted in traditional dance and inspired by the natural movements of the insect world. It was a blend on dance that was highly disciplined and though a visual treat, obviously challenged the performer to adhere to a regime of steps and movement that, considering the tender age of some of those on stage, bordered on the incredible. And yet, they carried it off with aplomb – from their faces to their fingertips. The genius behind the artistic direction, costume, puppet and set design as well as the music selection, arrangement and editing was Mahesh. Mahesh’s talents extend to the computer, which is where I first saw the set design for the ballet and also how Mahesh’s vision for the costumes germinated from line drawings to 3D animations. The man is a walking design studio in the guise of a dancer.

There is a tendency to associate productions with children and for children as technically and qualitatively inferior to productions with professional actors and adults. Kumbi Kathawa comprehensively debunked such an association and in fact, was of a standard far higher than or effortlessly equals the best theatre in Colombo. This to me speaks volumes of the training at the Foundation. When I was there, the rehearsals began with some minutes of meditation that transformed chattering, sprightly children into models of serenity and concentration. It is this singular dedication to dance that is the Foundation’s signature cadence on stage. A fact that may have gone unnoticed was the presence of two Chilean dancers – Catalina and Lucia – who presence at the Foundation is a marker of its enduring international appeal and recognition as a temple of and for dance. It is also a marker of how ballet transcends language and cultural distinctions – it is its own language and as the excerpt from the programme note indicates, is able to tell a meaningful story without a single verbal utterance.

Thaji brought to life a hugely satisfying rendition of a mosquito and was also the solo dancer in a short performance before Kumbi Kathawa titled rebirth that amptly demonstrated the talents of a girl with dance in her DNA. I find myself in full agreement with “Java Jones”, a critic who having seen the ballet, wrote this of her:

Thaji played the villainous mosquito and did it to perfection. Her total absorption of the music made her timing impeccable and this, combined with her fluid grace, her flawless lines and her malevolent expression, elicited the Yang aspect of the story in no uncertain terms. Having watched Thaji develop over the years, it was always obvious that she would be the heir apparent to her predecessors – Vajira, Grande Dame of Sri Lankan Dance (her grandmother), and Upeka, successor to Vajira (Thaji’s aunt and teacher). This has now come to pass, as Thaji has surely come of age – and from now on, can only get better over the years to come, which, to us dance-aficionados, is something to really look forward to.

The primary annoyance on the night of my performance was sound – which was scratchy and far too loud, with the result that the video played at the beginning was exceedingly difficult to follow. Lighting was also terribly off on some occasions, bathing in bright lights what should have been action and characters, such as fireflies, best suited for an ambient light that would have highlighted far better their movement and costumes.

These shortfalls are of minor consequence however and I am told were not present or addressed on proceeding nights. What was enduring and immensely fulfilling was an hour of theatre that was like a good Pinot Noir – rich, full bodied and tasteful – a rich interplay of costume, lighting, choreography and music that surely only the Chitrasena and Vajira Dance Foundation could have so effortlessly managed to produce. One can only hope that Kumbi Kathawa facilitated the local and international visibility and through it, the funding the Foundation so desperately needs to secure and strengthen Vajira’s and Chitrasena’s tradition of dance in Sri Lanka.

Also read:
In conversation with the Chitrasena – Vajira Dance Foundation on theatre in Sri Lanka
A brief glimpse of “Kumbi Kathawa” (Ant Story)
Chitrasena, Art and Politics

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