Leela Dance Collective to Present SPEAK, an All-Female Indian Kathak and American Tap Dance Collaboration

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Leela Dance Collective to Present SPEAK, an All-Female Indian Kathak and American Tap Dance Collaboration

Serving as a bridge between tradition and innovation, history and progress - Indian Kathak and American Jazz Tap dance - continents and ages apart share parallel stories of struggle and perseverance in SPEAK. The sensational collaboration is presented by the Leela Dance Collective. With rhythm, poetry, storytelling, music and dance, SPEAK features the world's leading female Kathak dancers and iconic Tap dancers creating nothing short of magic on the stage, joined by the world's leading Indian classical and American jazz musicians, SPEAK promises to thrill, provoke and move your spirit. This critically acclaimed dance collaboration is about to embark on its Spring tour to Hawaii, February 12-16; St. Mary's University of MN, March 27; NC State University, April 17 and 18; University of Florida at Gainesville, April 21; and South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, FL, April 25.


SPEAK features Kathak classical dancers Rachna Nivas, Rina Mehta (both are primary torch bearers of the late legendary master Pt. Chitresh Das' famed lineage of Kathak and SPEAK co-creators), and Jazz Tap dancers Michelle Dorrance (Dorrance Dance, NY) and Dormeshia (Tony Award-Winning Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk), carrying forward the legacy of iconic male artists like Pandit Chitresh Das, Jimmy Slyde and James Buster Brown, while bringing to the forefront the voices of a new generation of powerful female artists.


Socially relevant, SPEAK takes risks and breaks creative barriers, celebrating unique and contrasting forms of expression, while finding common ground. These cross-cultural performances emphasize improvisation as the unifying core rather than choreography, highlighting the vacuum of female artists in these art forms - a climate where well-known masters are still men. Most importantly, SPEAK uncovers how we are unique and how we are one. It is a statement for how we can be global citizens of this world.


Rachna Nivas is a leading artist, educator, and activist in Indian classical dance, bringing a relevant voice to kathak. Deemed "charismatic" and "revelatory" by the San Francisco Chronicle, Nivas is a fierce and passionate performer. She is a founding artist of the all women-led Leela Dance Collective producing powerful works through the collective creativity of trailblazing women in kathak. She is currently touring her collaborative work SPEAK, bringing together kathak and tap, as well as her dance ballad, Son of the Wind, featuring 20 dancers and a live orchestra. Her original solo work, Meera, was featured at the ODC Walking Distance Festival in San Francisco and at Salvatore Capezio Theater in New York City. Her original work Stir, choreographed for the Chhandam Youth Dance Company, was featured at the WorldWideWomen's Girls Festival. Her works have been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, New Music USA, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, California Arts Council, and Zellerbach Family Foundation. Prior to her work with Leela, Nivas was principal dancer with the Chitresh Das Dance Company, of which she received two nominations for an Isadora Duncan Dance Award while performing in numerous productions. Some of the most notable venues she has performed at include Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Cal Performances at UC Berkeley, Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theater and Ford Theaters in Los Angeles, National Center for Performing Arts in Mumbai, National Institute of Kathak Dance in New Delhi. Nivas is also the artistic director of the Chhandam Youth Dance Company, shepherding excellence, leadership, and creative discovery amongst teens. She is also Director of the Leela Dance NYC Initiative, bringing kathak to NYC. Currently splitting her time between San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, and Mumbai, Nivas is one of the most sought-after artists of her generation.


Rina Mehta has been described as "regal" and "brilliant" by critics, as she brings a singular voice and vision to the art form of Kathak. An artist and an entrepreneur, Mehta is a leading torch-bearer of kathak master, Pandit Chitresh Das' famed lineage. As a founding artist of the Leela Dance Collective, Mehta has developed critically-acclaimed works such as SPEAK, a kathak-tap collaboration; Chandanbala, the story of the revered Jain saint interpreted through the Kathak tradition; and Son of the Wind, the story of the India's mythological hero, Hanuman, brought to life through dance-drama. Her works have been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, New Music/USA and the California Arts Council. Prior to her work with the Leela Dance Collective, Rina was a principal dancer with the Chitresh Das Dance Company, performing and touring with the company's critically acclaimed productions including Shabd, Pancha Jati, and Sita Haran across the United States and in India. Mehta has performed at such prestigious venues/festivals nationally and in India, including The Broad Stage, the Yerba Buena Center for Performing Arts, Meany Hall for Performing Arts and Tata Theater/NCPA in Mumbai. Mehta is the recipient of the prestigious Fulbright award for research in Kathak dance, the Alliance for California Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Grant, and has twice been nominated for an Isodara Duncan Dance Award for Company performance as part of the Chitresh Das Dance Company. Mehta currently is Artistic Director of the Leela Academy in Los Angeles where she trains next generation dancers and educators and is visiting faculty at several prestigious kathak institutions around the world.


Dormeshia (Sumbry-Edwards) has been a part of almost every major Tap dance movie or show that has appeared in the history of tap dance since the 80's. Accolades include an Astaire Award for Best Performance in Broadway's After Midnight; the prestigious Princess Grace Statue Award; two New York Dance and Performance "Bessie" Awards (for performer and choreographer); The Hoofer Award'; Best Actress nomination in the lead role for an award-winning Independent film; and appearing as the cover story for Dance Magazine twice. In addition to founding "Ladies in The Shoe" tap dance conference honoring and promoting the expansive yet often lesser celebrated lineage of women in Tap, and co-directing the annual Tap Family reunion celebrating National Tap Dance Day in NYC, she continues to appear as a special guest for shows and festivals around the world. She was elected to the Advisory Board as the "Tap Advisor" for Dance Magazine and the official Tap spokesperson for Capezio. Dormeshia was also the private tap instructor to the iconic Michael Jackson over the course of 11 years. Dormeshia most recently created And Still You Must Swing along with collaborators Jason Samuels Smith and Derick K. Grant. The production named NY Times' Best of Dance in both 2016 and 2019 had sold out runs at Jacobs Pillow and The Joyce Theater. Dormeshia continues to be revered as one of the most dynamic performers in the industry today and she attributes her dynamic foundations to Paul & Arlene Kennedy who laid down foundations for excellence.


Michelle Dorrance, founder and artistic director of Dorrance Dance, is one of the most sought-after tap dancers of her generation and "one of the most imaginative tap choreographers working today" (The New Yorker). A 2015 MacArthur Fellow, 2014 Alpert Award winner, 2013 Jacob's Pillow Dance Award winner, 2012 Princess Grace Award Winner, 2012 Field Dance Fund Recipient, and 2011 Bessie Award Winner, Michelle is the Founder and Artistic Director of Dorrance Dance/ New York. Mentored by Gene Medler, Michelle grew up performing with the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble and has since performed with: STOMP, Savion Glover's ti dii, Manhattan Tap, Barbara Duffy & Co, JazzTap Ensemble, Rumba Tap, Ayodele Casel's Diary of a Tap Dancer, Mable Lee's Dancing Ladies, Harold Cromer's original Opus One, Derick Grant's Imagine Tap and Jason Samuels Smith's Charlie's Angels/Chasing the Bird. Michelle's choreography has been featured on stages throughout the world as well as in a high-fashion short film for Tabitha Simmons' 2011 Fall line. Michelle embodies a true passion for teaching and strives to share this passion wherever she goes. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from NYU, played bass for Darwin Deez, teaches on faculty at Broadway Dance Center, is a Capezio Athlete and has been featured on the covers of Dance Magazine and Dance Teacher Magazine. Michelle wishes to credit the master hoofers from whom she studied with in her youth for constant inspiration and influence.


The incredibly talented musical team is comprised of Jayanta Banerjee, Sitar and Allison Miller, Drums who both are responsible for composing the soundtrack to SPEAK. Joining the project live on stage are Carmen Staaf, Piano; Tabari Lake, Bass; Debasish Sarkar, Vocals; and on Tabla, Satyaprakash Mishra.


Kathak comes from the word "katha" which means story. The kathakas were storytellers that travelled from village to village in ancient India telling the stories of the great Hindu gods and goddesses. While the depiction of Hindu iconography remains visible in modern day kathak, the tradition of telling epic tales through kathak has been left behind by most contemporary practitioners of the art form in favor of more contemporary, abstract, or accessible explorations.


Tap is the indigenous American dance genre that evolved over a period of some three hundred years. Initially developing out of West African musical and step-dance traditions in America along with influences from other rhythm forms such as Irish step dance, tap emerged in the southern United States in the 1700s. While it is practiced around the world today, the art form still faces unique challenges when it comes to spaces that are open to housing the form.


The inspiration for SPEAK comes from the late kathak master Pandit Chitresh Das working with iconic tap dancer Jason Samuels to blend the two genres. After Das' death in 2015, "a handful of his senior disciples came together to discuss how to move forward his legacy and the rich art form of kathak," said Leela Dance founding member Rachna Nivas. "What emerged from that dialogue is the Leela Dance Collective, a home for those artists seeking to develop their individual creative voice while working collaboratively."


SPEAK takes its tour to: Maui Arts and Cultural Center, February 12; University of Hawaii, Hilo, February 14; Kahilu Theatre, Wamea, February 16; Page Theatre, St. Mary University of MN, March 27; North Carolina State Live, Raleigh, April 17/18; University of Florida, Gainesville, April 21; and South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, Fl, April 25. For more information and tickets, please visit speak.dance.


The Leela Dance Collective was founded in 2016 by Rina Mehta, Rachna Nivas and Seibi Lee, senior disciples of legendary kathak master Pandit Chitresh Das, along with leading kathak performers Sarah Morelli and Shefali Jain. It is the only one of its kind Indian-American dance company that brings together leading kathak artists from around the world representing a multitude of voices to articulate a clairvoyant vision for kathak.


The collective is distinguished by an artistic practice that centers around collaboration and collective creativity and a body of work that is at once grounded in tradition and boldly innovative. In its two-year history, the collective has already begun to make an indelible mark on the field of kathak and world dance with its rigorous technique, dynamic choreography, fashion-forward costuming, and sophisticated musical scores.


The collective has garnered critical acclaim across the United States and internationally for its groundbreaking productions from SPEAK, a collaboration that brings together leading female artists in kathak and tap, to Son of the Wind, a traditional dance ballad based on India's epic, the Ramayana. With home season performances in San Francisco and Los Angeles along with national and international touring, the collective performs for more than 10,000 people annually. Past highlights include appearances at The Broad Stage, the Green Music Center and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The collective's productions and performances have been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the Zellerbach Family Fund, the Esper Petersen Foundation and New Music USA. For more information about Leela Dance Collective visit theleelainstitute.org.




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