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Mudra Dance Studio Show Takes Flight in "ILLhaam... Cycles... ILLumination"

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It seems every time Mudra Dance Studio mounts one of its big productions -- it's been every two years for the last three shows -- it's worth the wait because the troupe's founder, Namita Khanna Nariani, adds something new and incredible to the mix.

We've seen the Mudra troupe perform at all but one Colorado Dragon Boat Festival, so we're not strangers to the talent of this remarkable South Asian organization, and to Nariani's determination to stretch the artistic limits of traditional, classical Indian dance with contemporary aesthetics that rise above ripping off the hipness factor of Bollywood musicals with some shallow syncopated moves. To see the Mudras dance a 30-minute set is one thing. The three-hour artistic tour-de-force that is their big blowout performances is something else entirely.

Nariani always adds a little sumthin-sumthin'. The first time Erin and I saw a major Mudra show, Nariani had taken a hint from her Colorado Dragon Boat Festival performance of that summer and incorporated African drumming. Then she added Japanese taiko drumming the next time (something else she first tried at the Dragon Boat Festival). And after that, she staged multi-media extravaganzas above the stage, with a sophisticated computerized graphics and videos on a big screen complementing the nimble dancers. That was two years ago.

The latest performance, "ILLhaam... Cycles... ILLumination," is the 13th production, and as always, the show isn't to raise money for the troupe, a 501(c)3 non-profit. Mudra Dance Studio always raises money for other non-profits with these performances, and this year's beneficiary is the Indian/Nepalese Colorado Heritage Camp, the weekend-long summertime camp that allows adopted South Asian kids to be with other South Asian kids and immerse themselves in Indian and Nepalese culture.

The sumthin' Nariani worked up for "ILLhaam" was the surprise aerial choreography of the title piece, shown in the video above (I shot it from my seat; a professionally-produced video will be available by the holidays on DVD), which brought a Cirque du Soleil-like element of graceful movement to the precision movements of the dancers grounded on the stage.

Throughout the performance, I was struck by the mindfulness of the choreography -- every move was designed from the hands and body to a line of dancers, to the front-and-back sections, to the entire flow on the floor. Every move was counterbalanced; everyone was part of a pattern that seemed like a seamless visual, aural and overall sensory journey through one culture's vast richness.

The first half of the show was devoted to spiritual and physical transitions, with titles for each piece like "Cycle of the Physical: Birth to After Life" and "Cycle of Knowledge: Learning, Teaching, Sharing." Groups of dancers were featured on each, and then the entire troupe for the show-stopper with the acrobatics.

The second half was sort of a cultural tour of India, cycling through various traditions and contemporary styles (one number was a tribute to A.R. Rahman, the Indian composer now well-known in the West for his soundtrack for Slumdog Millionaire. The tour ended with a final salute of Bhangra music from Punjab.

The troupe's recorded soundtrack was enhanced on many numbers by Thomas Knight's taiko drumming, Shane Franklin on African djembe drum (and his tap-dancing skills on one song that highlighted the percussionists), and Joe LeGolvan on a western rock/jazz drum set. And, the entire evening was enhanced throughout by the high-tech and high-concept graphics work and videos produced by Shawn Herbert, a young man whose design and tech skills should keep him busy for a career.

We're lucky to have such a world-class Indian dance troupe in Denver, with a leader like Namita Khanna Nariani, who has the aesthetic vision and leadership skills to inspire students and an extended family of artists, costumers, production staff and others to create such an inspired, and inspiring, performance.

I can hardly wait for the next show... in a coupla years.