While Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition is an indisputably bright moment in the history of our city, the world today rightly looks unfavorably at its exploitation of otherness. Relegated to the Midway on the outskirts of the White City, featured among a menagerie of animals and unusual artifacts, people representing faraway cultures were put on display to quench fairgoers’ fascination with exoticism.
Sri Lanka, known as Ceylon at the time, was one of many cultures represented at the 1893 World’s Fair. And right or wrong, the Midway offered Americans a chance to learn about other cultures, a near-impossibility at that time. So, it seems fitting that Mandala South Asian Performing Arts would debut “Masks & Myths,” a collaboration with Sri Lankan dancers and musicians, at the Logan Center on the University of Chicago campus, the very grounds on which Sri Lankans were exploited as entertainment 125 years ago. “Masks & Myths” grapples with questions about the effects of colonialism and tokenism on traditional South Asian dance and music, combining a variety of percussion instruments and styles of dance to reveal differences and similarities between African and Asian cultural traditions.
Mandala artists Ashwaty Chennat, Connor Torres, Pranita Nayar, and Ashley Fargnoli embarked on a year-long collaboration with Sudesh Mantillake, a Sri Lankan dancer, choreographer and researcher, as part of a cross-cultural exchange program. Their collaborative evening takes place in three parts, first acting out a scene from the Midway at the 1893 World’s Fair by showcasing a series of Sri Lankan, West African, Japanese, Balinese and Arabic traditional dances with live music, plus a ballet solo en pointe. This parade of nations is a bit mawkish at moments, giving off a distinct “Nutcracker” vibe as Mantillake interacts with each of the dancers and mimics their movements like Clara navigating through the Kingdom of the Sweets (even more so now that our local version of the holiday favorite, for better or worse, has also planted its second act on the Midway of the Columbian Exposition).
By far the most exciting part of “Masks & Myths” is watching Mantillake and his extraordinary cast of dancer/musicians in a competitive dance and drum battle, first with each other and later with three of Chicago’s famed Bucket Boys: percussionists who drum on 5-gallon plastic paint cans while seated on milk crates.
This combined group of drummers, playing thammattama, geta bera and plastic buckets, return at the end of the evening, a finale for a third section which fuses Sri Lankan movement vocabularies with Mandala’s unique style of contemporary dance.
By beautifully melding their traditions and layering conventions from concert dance, the overarching lesson from these choreographers seems to be that we can’t deny that colonization, exploitation and appropriation happened, and that healing from our shared past is about reconciliation. “We are grounded, but we’re not stuck,” Mandala artistic director Pranita Nayar said to me before the show, implying that while it’s important to hold onto sacred traditions and stay true to our cultural identities, we might also acknowledge that in the 21st century, we can learn from one another in ways that honor our similarities and respect our differences.