Tap, jazz and Kathak, a Northern Indian dance form - it sounded like an unlikely combination. I was more curious than excited as I settled into my Castle Theater seat at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center for "India Jazz Suites," wondering how tap phenom Jason Samuels Smith and Kathak master Pandit Chitresh Das would pull it off.
Turns out I had underestimated the power of fast footwork.
Last Thursday night's show was electrifying: a rare look at innovation in the making, two men at the top of their genres who weren't afraid to lay it out there and try something new, something different, something really, really fun.
The show began with a sizzling jazz trio off to one side of the stage - Marcus Johnson on bass, Sameer Gupta on drums and Theo Hill on piano. The musicians had the small crowd warmed up by the time Smith walked out on stage.
Wearing a loose black suit, the 27-year-old Smith quickly set an informal tone as he told the audience: "This show is all about communication, vibes, moves. If you like something, let us know!" He invited us to scream, clap and yell - or to boo if we didn't like it. Needless to say, nary a boo was heard all evening.
With an easy smile, braids flying, Smith began to tap. Sliding and skating, tripping, gliding, hopping, legs shaking and crossing, using toes, heels and the sides of his feet, he tapped as naturally as breathing. An entire rhythm section emerged from his feet.
Microphones laid on the stage picked up every tap, but unbelievably, two big amps blocked much of the view. Throughout the show, people in the orchestra section were leaning sideways to try to see the dancers' feet. A raised platform for the dancers would have solved the problem.
Smith tapped so fast and hard he sent up puffs of smoke from the stage. But at the end of "Freedom," as the audience stood to cheer for him, he smiled and shook his head. "Oh, we just getting started!"
Now it was Das' turn. Smith introduced him as a man who has "inspired and taught me continuously since the moment I met him I am honored and humbled to share the stage with this great master."
The jazz trio was replaced by three Indian musicians who seated themselves cross-legged before their instruments-Abhijit Banerjee on tabla, Jayanta Banerjee on sitar and Pt. Ramesh Mishra on sarangi, a bowed string instrument with a beautiful haunting sound.
With the sudden shift in mood, Das emerged carrying a tray of incense and paying homage to the deities Parvati and Shiva. Dressed in a black kurta edged with red and gold, Das began to dance, bare feet slapping the stage and hands moving sharply while his body remained still. Thick anklets of bells called ghungroo (weighing almost four pounds) accented his disciplined movements.
At 63, Das was nimble and precise with the bearing of a master of his craft. Performing "Thaat," he executed complex compositions based on Kathak's classical rhythmic structure, making subtle gestures with his eyes, neck, wrists and breath. In "Bol-Paran," where typically another person recites the composition for the dancer, Das simultaneously danced and chanted, his feet a blur.
The highlight of Das' solo was "Shakuntala and Dushanta," a piece that illustrated Kathak's narrative roots by relating a story from the great Hindu epic, "The Mahabharata." Das enacted the roles of a king and a maiden being attacked by a bumblebee. He was a master storyteller, embodying the regal king and the clip-clopping of his horse's hooves, as well as the wide eyes of the shy maiden.
After intermission, the borders between the artists' unique dance forms began to merge.
Das demonstrated his amazing ability to play tabla, sing and dance at the same time - all at different beats: "My hands might do 16, I will sing 10, my feet will do 12 beats it is a good exercise." Indeed! Joining him onstage, Smith declared, "I'm going to attempt to add my verbal, rhythmic contribution," and launched into freestyle rapping about the collaboration while Das kept time with his ghungroo.
Smith tapped with the Indian band, trading rhythms with the amazing Banerjee on tabla. Das danced with both bands, his feet moving faster than Gupta's racing drumbeats.
Finally, it was the piece everyone had been waiting for, when both artists began to dance in "India Jazz Suites." Smith pounded the stage; Das spun in tight circles; the two smiling and laughing as they played off each other and "one-upped" each other with every step. The energy poured off the stage, and the audience responded with rhythmic clapping.
As I stood with the rest of the audience to give the dancers a rousing ovation, I found my horizons unexpectedly and wonderfully broadened. If such beauty can come out of pairing an original American art form with an ancient Indian dance style, where else might we go?