As a principal dancer and a member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company for 17 years, Seibi Lee was used to a question her master teacher often asked her.
“He spent years preparing us for what suddenly happened in 2015,” says the Berkeley-based artist. “He asked us, ‘If I die today, what are you going to do tomorrow?’ I remember thinking to myself, ‘Will I collapse?’ 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 had to think about it.
Pandit Chitresh Das, the company’s founding artistic director and renowned master of Indian classical dance, died of an acute aortic dissection in January 2015 at the age of 70. Shortly before his death, he introduced Lee to the pancham sawari, a cycle of 15 beats on which it is unusual to dance. He left her a numerological puzzle.
“I’ve spent years since he gave it to me trying to make it my own, and it’s helped me keep his presence close to me,” she says. “It’s a journey and an ever-evolving memory, which means he’s always by my side. I hope it will always be there.
Her presence is likely to be deeply felt on March 31 at the Taube Atrium Theater in San Francisco, where Lee will perform “The Voice Within” under the auspices of the Leela Dance Collective, which she co-founded with Rachna Nivas and Rina Mehta. The evening-long solo performance explores paradoxical stories drawn from his Japanese and Chinese ancestry and told through the Indian kathak dance form which is his specialty.
Bringing to the stage her mixed heritage – her 90-year-old mother is Japanese and her nearly 92-year-old father is Chinese – and trained extensively in Western classical music while growing up in Canada, Lee finds herself keenly aware at the crossroads of his personal identity. The pandemic has sharpened her desire to make peace and ground herself in multicultural identity which she has explored primarily through dance.
“I’m starting to see the essence of not running away from my heritage and not giving up classical Indian dance to study Chinese or Japanese dance. I make peace with my heritage by reflecting it through the stories I tell in this kathak Art form. It makes me feel whole: it all comes together. As I post it, it will be interesting to see where it goes. The deep investigation, liberated in the performance, I have the impression of moving forward on the path that leads to understanding who I am. The path to being comfortable in my own skin that contains all of these things.
Lee will be joined by four Hindustani musicians; Jayanta Banerjee (playing the sitar), Ben Kunin (on the sarod), Jay Ghandi (bansuri), and Satyaprakash Mishra (picture). The powerfull kathak technical, said tayari, features meticulous percussive footwork, dizzying pirouettes and expressive hand gestures. Lee says the technique came naturally to him. An understanding of rhythm that allows for the improvisational element of the art form, called laykari, was much more difficult to achieve. Due to her background in Western classical music, in which it’s paramount to follow all notes exactly and stay true to dynamic marks, Lee says improvising required more practice.
“You also have storytelling on top of those aspects,” says Lee. “I am not someone who naturally imitates or imitates others. Finding the character portrait, becoming the character – this quality is a surprise for me to discover.
Perhaps because the pandemic forced separation between Lee and her parents, who live in Canada, and her peers, the preparation process she went through was more internal. Where the works she has created or participated in with the Leela Collective have been extremely collaborative, this project has led her to embrace her Asian American identity in isolation.
“Having spent a lot of time thinking and rethinking these stories because I couldn’t let them out made the dances feel more thoughtful, more rounded, more complete.”
In Chinese history, Change is an unhappy immortal being staring down at Earth, wondering what it’s like to be human. Sent to Earth to live a life of penance, she falls in love with a human and finds out what it is. Through a series of actions, she fails to share an immortality pill with him and floats to the moon, eternally separated from the mortal form and life she once had.
“We always yearn for what we don’t have,” says Lee. “These two worlds touch each other, but they cannot exist on the same plane beyond this moment. Yearning for something different, not realizing what you already have; it is striking to me. We go to the greener grass and then we wonder, is it really that green? When we are still searching, we forget the experience we are having here and now.
“Yuki no Onna”, is a Japanese tale involving the Snow Woman, a character that Lee says “gives death” but in a rare case gives life to a son losing his father.
“She becomes human, has a life, has children with him but cannot 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 pushed out.
Growing up, Lee was the only Asian person in the schools she attended.
“I tried not to be Asian. Curiously, I launched into kathak, from an Eastern part of the world but certainly not Chinese or Japanese dance. Eventually, it brought me back to my heritage. What I see is that kathak has the ability to tell stories from other cultures without changing. All of these things are who I am.
For tickets or more details on “The Voice Within”, visit leela.dance/thevoicewithin online.
Lou Fancher is a freelance writer. Contact her at [email protected]