Savannah Music Festival review: Masters of Indian Music & Dance: Amjad Ali Khan & Zakir Hussain and Vijayalakshmi

Dancer — and in a sense historian — Vijayalakshmi was up first in this remarkable and beautiful night of traditional Indian arts at the Lucas Theatre.

Dressed in white with gold accents, wearing stylized makeup, Vijayalakshmi gave a brief description of each dance in the Mohiniyattam tradition before performing it. She was accompanied by a great live quartet, who would have been just fine on their own for the 50-minute or so set: vocalist Palakal Rajagopalan, Sreekumar Kadampatt on edakka, Muralee Krishnan on veena, and Gitesh Gopalakrishnan on the double-headed drums maddalam and mrdangam.

I used to see a lot of modern dance when I lived in other cities, and have even reviewed it informally once or twice. But despite a pretty active group of dance schools and some great dance performances at the arts-magnet Savannah Arts Academy, one doesn’t get to see much professional dance in Savannah. And my experiences with modern dance sure aren’t much help in critiquing Vijayalakshmi’s performance, which was fluid and evocative in every way. I wished there was a little more percussiveness in the movements at times, but that seemed an issue of history of the art form, not of skill. Ditto for the obvious limits on the movements determined by the costume — and the limits on the gestures determined by the makeup.

All the pieces were beautiful, but I was most taken by the final one — “Dance of the Peacock” — because I found cultural common ground easily. And I don’t just mean the literalness of the peacock’s moves, but the broader symbolism of the peacock, with which native Savannahian Flannery O’Connor herself was fascinated.

The second half of the program was even more stunning than the first. Brilliant tabla player Zakir Hussain, whom I had been lucky enough to see the night before with Bela Fleck and Edgar Mayer, performed with sarod master Amjad Ali Khan. Using his fingernails on the stringed instrument, sitting with Hussain on a raised platform, clad in traditional Indian styles, Khan’s playing evoked any number of moods and emotions from the sarod — and from me. With all the sudden variations in pace, the audience seemed rapt throughout (with the exception of one toddler who made it fine through the first half of the show but not so fine through the second). It was one of those great SMF experiences that I literally would have no other chance to have in the course of a year without a long trip somewhere.

But is there too much of a good thing? At a total running time of 2 hours, 50 minutes (including the intermission, which might have been longer than necessary given that the show was nowhere near a sellout), I thought the program was a little long. I suppose one could argue that a completely unique pairing like this in a city that sees so little international programming of this caliber would be worth that much time — even more. But I think the whole show would have seemed more cohesive if each half had dropped maybe one number each. No doubt that would have left us all wanting more — not necessarily a bad thing.

The production also posed some interesting questions about audiences and marketing. The SMF offered some well-publicized deep discounts for really good seats right up till the last minute, but the Lucas still had 100s of empty spots. There was a solid turnout from the local Indian community, and I saw any number of SMF regulars on hand. But shows featuring world music, international music, whatever terms one wants to use, are tough sells generally at the SMF. There were also plenty of empty seats for “African Interplay” the previous week, which I reviewed glowingly. (Btw, on this past Saturday evening during Chico Pinheiro’s set before Dianne Reeves took the stage (review to come), producer/composer/conductor Robert Sadin — who had also conducted an ensemble on stage during “African Interplay” — rhapsodized about the great audiences at the SMF, so what seemed like a meager crowd to me for “African Interplay” might have seemed better to him.)

Maybe the tickets for shows like “Masters of Indian Music & Dance” just need to be cheaper from the outset? Maybe the SMF should just give up on some of its more ambitious multicultural programming? (I’d HATE to see that happen, but it’s a viable option from a financial perspective if there aren’t major sponsors ready to fill the gaps.) Maybe there needs to be more effort made to target the marketing — like, say, to try to get the entire Savannah Arts Academy dance department to a show like this? Or maybe we just need a great 500-700 person venue so that tickets for some shows would automatically gain in value? There’s constant buzz about the possibility of new venues, and the city of Savannah’s planned new cultural arts center will have a 500-seat theater, although there are grievous doubts among some that the city will actually build a venue of sufficient quality for shows like this. I wrote about that general issue here (be sure to read the comments), and will no doubt write about it again. I’d love to see us have something like the Memminger Auditorium, one of Spoleto USA’s most versatile venues.

Or maybe it’s just a matter of doing what seems right from a programming perspective and of plugging away and plugging away at marketing? I get frustrated that more Savannah area residents aren’t willing to take risks on such shows, but budgets are tight, time limited, etc. I bought tickets to eight SMF shows (including “African Interplay”) this year, but I relied on a free press seat for “Masters of Indian Music & Dance,” so I don’t have any right to complain about others not buying seats for it.

It’s one of those ongoing issues that’s not going to disappear.

All in all, however, it was another rich night.

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