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Flash Review 2, 1-31: Live Streaming
Gods & Ghosts from Ibrahim Quraishi

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2006 Maura Nguyen Donohue

Photo copyright Frances Hui

NEW YORK -- It seems like a disservice to even try to describe Ibrahim Quraishi's "5 Streams" with words. Perhaps this should be true for most art -- particularly live performance -- but for a work as highly complex and experimental, at once intimate and mythic in scope as this one, I find words especially inadequate. How does one describe a great trip? And by great trip, I do indeed mean the chemically-induced journeys of a past life. Herewith, then, a recap of images and actions -- even impressions -- just don't expect me to be able to impart the intensely visceral responses I experienced during the 90 minutes I sat on the floor of the Asia Society's second floor gallery Sunday, January 22, while gods and ghosts fought and played.

Parul Shah in Ibrahim Quraishi's "5 Streams." Frances Hui photo copyright Frances Hui and courtesy Asia Society.

Commissioned by the Asia Society in association with MassMOCA, "5 Streams" was an off-site participant in former P.S. 122 artistic director Mark Russell's second Under the Radar theater festival. The five-day event, based primarily out of The Public Theater (where Russell had been a candidate to succeed George C. Wolfe), featured artists from Australia, Austria, Brazil, Columbia, France, Indonesia, the Netherlands, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with other off-site events taking place at 651 Arts, The Kitchen, New York Theatre Workshop, Theatre Mitu, and Arts at St. Ann's/The Foundry.

Quraishi's ambitious multi-media creation, fusing Kathak and modern dance, electronica, live video mixes, text and installation art was the kind of work I might have once considered far under the radar of the standard Upper East Side Asia Society audience. "We've finally gone downtown!," director of programming Rachel Cooper told me on my way up the stairs for the last of six sold-out shows.

Quraishi manages to bring experimental performance and ancient tradition together with a level of mastery and knowledge that could satisfy many a pilgrim in search of the exotic, whether they be pierced club-kid, posed arts presenter or proper mum. The program is divided into three sections, the first two performed gauntlet style in between an audience seated on two sides of the action and the third moving the specatators through an interactive sonic forest installation and out into the lobby. Each section originates from but then artfully abandons texts within Islamic and Hindu traditions. "Vision 1: Anarkali: Inside the walls of NATURE/paradise" draws on a tragic court romance of Mughal, India. "Vision 2: War in times of LOVE" explodes the battlefield dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and Lord Krishna, from the Bhagavad-Gita. "Vision 3: Through the FOREST with Ibn Al-Arabi" interprets the 12th-century Sufi philosopher Ibn Al-Arabi's mystical treatise "Risale-t-ul-wujudiyyah (Who Knoweth Thyself)."

Quraishi provides extensive program notes offering conceptual, aesthetic and historical reflections but a familiarity with the stories isn't necessary to get it. The work played out like a deeply researched dissertation filled with ample cultural references and deftly riffing across various forms of performative and visual arts.

While "5 Streams" is directed and conceived by Quraishi, an acclaimed conceptual artist whose Compagnie Faim de Siecle is based in both New York and Paris, its success has much to do with his well-selected team of collaborators and performers. Every element of this highly involved production was executed with thorough vision and mastery. Xavier Hool's designs for the space and costumes were dramatically wild and texturally enticing. The writing; the performances; the dancing; the video and the score were each powerful individually and totaled a riveting, transformational encounter with art. The titular five streams refer to the Indus River's five tributaries, the five core nations of South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka), the five pillars of Islam and the five principles of Hinduism. If I could have reclined against silk pillows and awakened my tongue and nose with some fiery vindaloo and sweet lassi the experience would have easily satisfied all five senses.

Celebrated Khatak artist Parul Shah choreographed and performed in Vision 1 as Anarkali, the courtesan who was bricked up alive inside a vault for defying the reigning Mughal Emperor Akbar. She began covered by a long purple veil and standing on the strip of white flooring, which curved at both ends of the space like rising waves. Video images, mixed live by Marc Perroud (a.k.a. tzed) involved water and trees which seemed to stream over and engulf Shah while she moved with quiet aggression, simply oozing feminine power as she executed sharp direction changes and authoritative stomps. When she dropped the veil, the video shifted to an urban landscape with rapidly moving images of traffic lights, matched by Norscq's driving score. As I heard the faint sounds of moans and watched this sublime woman moving assuredly through rapid mudras I could feel my pulse quicken; I thought of the ancient and universal tradition of dancing girls, their impact both erotic and terrifying as they bridged the corporeal and the divine. Shah was appropriately captivating, both seductive and defiant throughout the dance, portraying a dominant force unwilling to succumb to the ruling patriarchy. Rajika Puri and Fawzia Afzal-Khan provided emotionally stirring vocals.

After two side panels were removed, Vision 2, "War in Times of LOVE," began with a crash as two stagehands ripped part of the set installation down to reveal Nicolas Lelievre, seated at a drum set. Lelievre's chaotic, aggressive drumming and Hool's fantasy Sci-Fi set design, looking like hardened webs of slime left by a giant insect, foreshadowed eventual destruction. Hool used the same material for his costumes, creating royal dresses and battle armor out of crinkling, synthetic plastic. Each costume, rigged with its own miniature lighting system controlled by the wearer, allowed for a true blend of performance and art. The visual impact was as powerful as any performance at creating an otherworldly quality that placed them in a place of legend -- not the setting I would have imagined for the philosophical Indian epic.

I had chosen to sit on the floor, rather than on a folding chair, at the middle point of the white floor so that I could be as intimate with the work as possible, believing this to be part of the reason we were in a gallery space and not Asia Society's theater. As Vision 2 progressed I found myself aching for complete immersion. Quraishi and his collaborators realized his vision with such deliberate and meticulous expertise that I wanted to submerge myself wholly within their incredible realm. I daydreamed of watching my fellow audience members melt away, losing any awareness of the exit door, the mixing table behind me, the performer waiting for an entrance and inhabiting, ever so briefly, this wonderland where gods and legends fought and argued, suffered and perished.

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