“Joining Hands” | Review
A petite 26-year-old who performs with the assured confidence of dancers twice her age, Anjal Chande is a pleasure to watch. Even when a wireless microphone fell out of its moorings in her orange-and-gold dress during the first act of “Joining Hands,” her collaboration with Aakash Mittal Quartet, through Sunday 21, Chande remained unfazed and as cool as a cucumber.
Their sprawling, ambitious new work, previewed in this week’s Time Out Chicago, isn’t overtly geared toward kids but I left the Vittum Theater—known to local parents as the home of —thinking of “Joining Hands” as a great cross-cultural outing for big kids and tweens.
During the bulk of its first act, titled The Creative Impulse and featuring handsome video projections by David Ofori-Amoah, Chande dances her journey toward fluency in the classical Indian form of Bharatanatyam, which as it’s handled could be a stand-in for everything from ballet to piano to tennis to algebra. She performs solos of learning, practicing and finally creating in the new language, voiced over with a simple narrative about the joy of mastery, and of the freedom of expression brought by patience and perseverence. “Learning each new step was like a discovery, pulling her deeper into the world,” she says of her dance training in retrospect. Lyrical white line drawings of Bharatanatyam’s distinct hand gestures appear on the screen behind her; fingers open and close as Chande’s voice reads a list of opposing forces. “To grow; to shrink. To create; to consume.”
The piece’s second act is less structured but gives the performers more room to flex all of that hard-earned creative muscle. (It’ll be the more satisfying act for grownups and older kids.) Unusually, in a sequence of improvised solos, the four musicians—all warm, accomplished players—follow Chande’s lead. She begins by drumming out a complex rhythm with her feet or knuckles on the floor, which drummer Josh Moore and, later, the rest of the band (guitarist Matt Fuller, upright bassist Jean-Luc Davis and Mittal on clarinet, flute and sax) picks up. Their symbiosis is impressive; these impromptus offer more structure and internal logic than many dances labeled “finished choreography.”
In an extension of Bharatanatyam’s distinct vocabulary of facial expressions, Chande breaks at times into pantomime, performing one half of wordless dialogues between herself and…herself? Her parents? Her teachers? It’s open to interpretation, and yet also enjoyable as simply the experimentation of a skilled performer.
(One moment during which Chande sat, clenched a fist by her ear and then pushed it away with the other palm, was arrestingly poetic; later, she knelt and cleared the space before her, pulling invisible weeds from her path with alternating hands. A drawing-back of one hand from the other, as if stretching a bow in preparation for shooting an arrow, dissolved without the expected release, leaving us viewers with a little mystery, a puff of smoke in the shape of a question mark, which then dissipated.)
At a full two hours, “Joining Hands” is a commitment, and its penultimate chapter, Shringara, lacks focus. An MC delivers oddly labored instructions that young ones might appreciate but older ones will find prescriptive. But its finale, Jugalbandi, is a payoff worth the wait, a never-promised but certainly hoped-for display of pure virtuoso dance technique and musicianship. Each of the five performers enjoys a turn in the spotlight.