CUPERTINO, Calif. — Published in 2001, Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi” details the 227-day arduous journey of two shipwreck survivors — a son of zookeepers named Pi and their zoo’s vicious tiger named Richard Parker — onboard a lifeboat across the Pacific Ocean. The book premiered on the silver screen in 2012 and Nov. 4 ascended the stage at the De Anza Visual Performing Arts Center here through Bharata Dance and Allied Arts’ “Life of Pi.”
Directed by Ganesh Vasudeva with concept feedback from Rasika Kumar, the production included the exposition, the journey, and the alternative perspective.
Projecting an overarching value of minimalism, the production did not depend on costume changes, flashy lighting and gobos, multiple props, heavy instrumentation, narration, or even numerous artists. Dressed in subdued yet versatile black-and-white costumes and in few yet elegant jewelry pieces, Ganesh Vasudeva played Pi and Aishwarya Venkat, Nitya Narasimhan, Roopa Suresh, and Shreya Iyer portrayed all the other characters.
With a non-gimmicky, simple yet effective score composed by Snigdha Venkataramani, alongside a minimum production design, the show relied on art to convey the message, illuminating Bharatanatyam’s power and the artists’ prowess while allowing audience members to authentically experience the emotions conveyed.
Similar to the book and the movie therefore, the production was a seamless experience, guided by a continuous musical track interspersed with narration only as necessary. However, this review does not focus on comparisons between the book, the movie, and the production. It explores how the overall themes — particularly of storytelling and man vs. animal — were exploited through performance.
Storytelling: “Life of Pi” is a story within a story, a firsthand recounting by Pi of his experiences. The documenting of his story is itself significant: storytelling is Pi’s means of survival. Narrated by Ganesh Vasudeva, the firsthand account felt authentic while through the score, where melody often overpowered the konnakkol, the story itself was elevated: the rasas evoked by the various ragas came first.
Dance was the medium through which the story was shared. The story’s importance was also evident through the specific choreography, especially in the shipwreck sequence. Although enacting swimming and being engulfed in waves is difficult to showcase through the Bharatanatyam vocabulary, the use of a draped blue, satin fabric — with which Pi wrapped himself and performed knee circles and other fast, grounded movements — coupled with permeating blue lights and unique, powerful chenda beats brought forth this effect.
Perspective is another important component of storytelling explored: when Japanese media officials are skeptical of Pi’s story, Pi retells it differently. Likewise, Ganesh Vasudeva narrated while the other dancers enacted this perspective via stop motion. Two things were masterful about this sequence: the use of unconventional perspective with Pi in the foreground and the retelling in the background; and the portrayal of the storyline through poses rather than a high energy telling like the initial. Through this stillness, there was a mystic quality created that propagated an inquisitive silence in the auditorium as the production concluded.
Man vs. Animal: Stranded alongside a 450-pound Bengal tiger, Pi struggles to find balance between his animalistic instincts and humanistic intelligence to survive.
In the choreography, drawing parallels between him and Richard Parker, the theme was especially underscored through two strategies: the first involved the introduction of Richard Parker in the lifeboat. Pi and Richard Parker were seen dancing back-to-back before the latter revealed himself; and later, in the final moment of the production, Richard Parker appeared back-to-back with Pi, as Pi demanded the audience to elect which storyline to believe. With a singular spotlight shared by Pi and Richard Parker, this moment was incredibly powerful. Moreover, their duality was emphasized as Pi tamed Richard Parker.
Drawing spatial boundaries (showcased through two distinct spotlights), Pi attempted to cross the line into Richard Parker’s territory only to be clawed. Surabhi Bharadwaj’s excellent lighting design featured the Lakshmana Rekha motif here, alluding to Pi’s Hindu identity.
Overall, transforming an award-winning book and movie into an effective dance production is no small task. However, through the incredible efforts of Ganesh Vasudeva and team, the production is set out to captivate Life of Pi fans globally, while attracting new aficionados as well.
“Life of Pi” will be staged in San Francisco, Calif., Feb. 3, 2019. For more information, visit www.brava.org.