East West Players' Close and Sometimes Disturbing ‘Encounter’

Encounter, which opens East West Players’ 47th season, mixes a military tale with some Cirque du Soleil style moments.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - The story and movement may not be familiar to most audiences, but the emotions evoked by the Navarasa Dance Theater — love, camaraderie, loss and anguish — are universal.

Those are only a few of the feelings expressed throughout Encounter, which the company has brought to Little Tokyo’s East West Players to open its 47th season. The show runs through Oct. 6.

In a scant 75 minutes, choreographer, director and star Aparna Sindhoor and her cast powerfully explore the severe issues that have grown out of India’s class system, and how the country’s indigenous people are mired in an endless cycle of struggle and persecution.

A deeper knowledge of Indian politics would help an audience grasp all of the show’s nuances despite the dearth of dialogue, but the broad strokes painted in Encounter can resonate with anyone touched by the sting of overt discrimination and racism.

Encounter is based on a short story by Indian writer Mahasweta Devi, adapted by Sindhoor, S M Raju and Anil Natyaveda. With minimal text, the dances are expected to tell the bulk of the story.

Things begin at the end, with Dopdi (Sindhoor) hanging upside-down and being interrogated by military troops led by the harsh Major General Sena Nayak (Sunil Kumar). Time then jumps back, allowing the viewer to see how Dopdi reached this fate. 

It turns out, she is part of a tribal drama company, along with her husband Dulna (Natyaveda). They also are members of the Adivasi Survival Movement, which the military aims to destroy.

By day the couple and other members of the tribe harvest crops. At night they entertain as “starving artists,” which Dopdi makes clear isn’t as romantic as it sounds because they are actually hungry.

The soldiers are searching for Dopdi, with plans to force her to provide names and locations of the survival movement. On closer inspection, though, the soldiers hold similar desires and needs as the peasants — only they are required to follow the lead of the general.

The few moments of humor and tenderness with the indigenous people are shrouded by a dark cloud because part of the ending has already been shared. Still, Sindhoor’s understated yet honest portrayal allows the tragic events to resonate strongly. She holds back her strongest emotions until an explosive climax.

The remaining cast members have difficulty with the acting part of their performance, each coming off stiff or difficult to understand. The situation is exacerbated because Encounter lacks sufficient plot to give context to the battle between the Adivasi people and the military. If you don’t read the synopsis of scenes in the program, it’s easy to get lost.

Even without a fully realized story, Encounter shines during the dance numbers, which borrow from a variety of genres and are executed with precision and energy.

A memorable scene featuring Leah Vincent pays homage to the wild abandon of Bollywood movies, including plenty of gyrations and sensual moves set to pop music. One military dance incorporates athletic, synchronized, staccato high-step moves, sharply contrasting with the stooped swaying of the Adivasi as they harvest crops. 

There are several highly physical dances almost reminiscent of a Cirque du Soleil act. One incorporates a swinging rope from which Natyaveda hangs and spins. There’s also a tall post that he traverses elegantly during a serene moment. The post is used later as a tool to assist in torturing Dopdi. Though not graphic, the suggested rape of Dopdi is unsettling. 

In content and form, Encounter fluctuates from traditional to modern, including composer Isaac Thomas Kottukapally’s score, which at times is dominated by classic wind instruments and percussion sounds, and in other scenes is mostly electronic based.

That tension between the old and new adds a layer of meaning to Encounter. The tribe is in harmony with the natural order of things, while the military appears designed to create chaos and confusion. 

A mixture of cool blues and stark whites dominates Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting. Much of the piece is in partial shadow, as if Sindhoor is creating a dreamlike atmosphere.

In this case, however, the beautiful dream becomes a disturbing nightmare. Sindhoor and company may not explain the history and true motivation for the actions depicted in the story, but the impact on the lives of everyone involved is understandable and unforgettable.

Encounter runs through Oct. 6 at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., (213) 625-7000 or eastwestplayers.org.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2012