Berkeley-based Indian dance artist to present ‘Voice Within’ in S.F.
By Lou Fancher
As a principal dancer and 17-year member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company, Seibi Lee was accustomed to a question her master teacher often asked.
“He spent years preparing us for what happened suddenly in 2015,” the Berkeley-based artist says. “He would ask us, ‘If I die today, what are you going to do tomorrow?’ I remember I wondered, ‘Would I fall apart?’ We didn’t take it seriously at first; some people were shocked by the question and refused to think about it, but it stuck in my mind. I felt I should think about it.”
Pandit Chitresh Das, the company’s founding artistic director and renowned master of Indian classical dance, died of acute aortic dissection in January 2015 at age 70. Not long before he passed, he introduced Lee to the pancham sawari, a 15-beat cycle that’s unusual to dance to. He left her with a numerological puzzle.
“I’ve spent the years since he gave it to me trying to make it mine, and that has helped me keep his presence close to me,” she says. “It’s a journey and a memory that keeps evolving, which means he’s still by my side. I hope he stays there always.”
It’s likely his presence will be felt profoundly March 31 at San Francisco’s Taube Atrium Theater, where Lee will present “The Voice Within” under the auspices of the Leela Dance Collective that she co-founded with Rachna Nivas and Rina Mehta. The evening-length solo performance explores paradoxical stories drawing from her Japanese and Chinese ancestry and told through the Indian kathak dance form that is her specialty.
Bringing to the stage her mixed heritage — her 90-year-old mother is Japanese, and her father, nearly 92, is Chinese — and trained extensively in Western classical music while growing up in Canada, Lee finds herself acutely aware of the crossroads of her personal identity. The pandemic has sharpened her desire to make peace with and ground herself within the multicultural identity she has explored primarily through dance.
“I’m beginning to see the essence of not running away from my heritage and alternatively not dropping Indian classical dance to study Chinese or Japanese dance. I’m making peace with my heritage by reflecting it through the stories I tell in this kathak art form. It makes me feel whole: all of this coming together. As I release it, it will be interesting to see where it goes. The deep investigation, released in performance, it feels like I’m moving on the pathway that leads to understanding who I am. The path to being comfortable in this skin of mine that holds all of these things.”
Lee will be joined by four Hindustani musicians; Jayanta Banerjee (playing the sitar), Ben Kunin (on the sarod), Jay Gandhi (bansuri), and Satyaprakash Mishra (tabla). The powerful kathak technique, known as tayari, includes meticulous percussive footwork, dizzying spins and expressive hand gestures. Lee says the technique came naturally to her. An understanding of rhythm that allows for the art form’s improvisational element, called laykari, was much harder to achieve. Due to her training in Western classical music in which following all the notes exactly and holding true to the dynamic markings is paramount, Lee says improvisation required more practice.
“You also have storytelling on top of these aspects,” Lee says. “I’m not someone who naturally mimics or imitates other people. Finding the character portrayal, becoming the character — that quality is a surprise for me to discover.”
Perhaps because the pandemic forced separation between Lee and her parents, who live in Canada, and from her peers, the preparation process she pursued was more internal. Where the works she has created or participated in with the Leela Collective have been enormously collaborative, this project caused her to embrace her Asian American identity in isolation.
“Having spent a lot of time thinking and rethinking about these stories because I couldn’t let them out has made the dances more thoughtful, more rounded, full.”
In the Chinese story, Chang’e is an unhappy immortal being who looks down upon the Earth, wondering what it’s like to be human. Sent to Earth to live a life in penance, she falls in love with a human and finds out what it’s like. Through a series of actions she fails to share a pill of immortality with him and floats to the moon, eternally separated from the mortal form and life she once had.
“We always yearn for the thing we don’t have,” says Lee. “Those two worlds touch each other, but they can’t exist on the same plane beyond that moment. Yearning for something different, the not realizing what you have already; that’s striking for me. We go to the greener grass and then ask ourselves, is it really that green? When we’re always questing, we forget the experience we’re having in the here and now.”
“Yuki no Onna,” is a Japanese tale involving the Snow Woman, a character Lee says “gives death” but in a rare instance, gives life to a son losing his father.
“She becomes human, has a life, has children with him but can’t be in the sun, and he must never tell anyone who she is. He accidentally says something about her, and they are tragically separated. She was brought into humanity but then thrust outside.”
Growing up, Lee was the only Asian person in the schools she attended.
“I tried not to be Asian. Interestingly, I threw myself into kathak, from an Eastern part of the world but definitely not Chinese or Japanese dance. Eventually, it has brought me back to my heritage. What I’m seeing is that kathak has the capacity to tell stories of other cultures without changing itself. All of these things are who I am.”