SurTaal Dance and Prop Thtr collaborate on “Nyra’s Dreams,” a one-woman project written and performed by Shalaka Kulkarni and directed by Stefan G. Brün. The show premiered October 27 at Chicago Dramatists and will run through November 19.
The Chicago Dramatists black box theater is small, intimate, warm, and the stage is set with a bench, an easel, and two pairs of shoes. Jackets hang off the easel; a scarf covers the bench. Incense burns in a corner. As the seventh and eighth members of the small audience enter, the theater door closes, the lights dim, and a drone begins. Shalaka Kulkarni enters in Bharatnatyam dress, with a silver circlet on her crown.
The show is intimate, almost uncomfortably so: as Kulkarni begins to dance, she makes eye contact with each member of the small audience, acknowledging each with the hint of a smile. She is completely in control, both of the room and of her movements. As she dips and rises, the soles of her feet and bells on her ankles lend a percussive layer to the soundtrack. Her dancing is architectural: the lasting image is of shapes, not the movement required to strike them. Her body becomes a building, her arms connecting structures, and her splayed fingers, ornaments.
As the piece ends, the lights fall and the sounds of water droplets play. A voice begins, speaking of dreams and “men pretending to be gods… trying to shape my mind about being a woman.” Kulkarni returns, now in a nondescript top and pants. She could walk down the street and not draw attention except that she still wears a crown.
As she speaks, the water droplets stop. She is supernatural, born in the space between mortal and spiritual, and her demeanor shows that conflict. She tugs on her clothing, fixes her hair, and glances around in apparent self-consciousness. She stumbles over words so convincingly it is never truly clear whether these mistakes were planned.
Water droplets sound again, and Kulkarni gestures offstage for them to cut it out. She is becoming agitated. “Time runs out,” she says, then begins to dance. She tugs her chin this way and that, face pained as her fingers crawl over her body.
She stops. She speaks of devadasi, girls who are dedicated to a deity and live their lives in temples, worshiping and honoring the deity through dance. She is taken with the world of the devadasi, “a world where women looked beautiful, strong.” She watches the devadasi, calling them “warriors of goddess Shakti.”
This time when she dances, it is halting. She alternates between smiling and cringing. She looks, again and again, at her hands.
When she finishes, she moves over to the easel, plucks off a jacket, and slides into a pair of shoes. She, the would-be goddess, continues her tale of walking amongst mortals, trying desperately to complete a quest that would grant her full goddess status. She has trouble communicating with humans, though, since she herself is not human. In her excitement to speak with her first human, whom she loves before ever meeting, she fails to give context for her appearance and dramatic questions– and the woman flees.
Kulkarni dances again. She gathers the strings of bells, previously on her ankles, and seems to pluck individual bells away. Her fingers at once hold the bells and are the bells. They cascade straight down from above, then over the back of her head. She seems to gather them in her palms, then holds them beneath her face. She blows them out toward the audience, thinks better of it, then lunges to catch them out of the air and stow them back in her pocket.
Kulkarni continues throughout her tale, alternating between speaking and dancing. In the audience, all human rustlings have ceased: no one coughs, no one shifts in their seats. The performance is completely immersive. Kulkarni is the only performer, but her body stands in both for characters and props. At one point, she speaks both parts of a conversation. At another, her fingers become sticks of chalk, then shackles around wrists. At no point does the piece want for more dancers, nor more costumes, nor more scenery. Kulkarni’s performance brings to life not only would-be goddess Nyra, but the many realms she inhabits, some earthly, some heavenly.
“Nyra’s Dreams” defies categorization. Through a one-woman performance, danced and acted by Shalaka Kulkarni, the would-be goddess Nyra comes to life, endeavoring to commune with humanity in order to secure her own eternity.
“Nyra’s Dreams” runs October 27 - November 19 at Chicago Dramatists, 798 North Aberdeen. For tickets and more information, please see the event listing below or visit Shalaka's website here.