“Nyra’s Dreams,” written and performed by Shalaka Kulkarni, directed by Stefan Brün and co-produced by Prop Thtr and SurTaal Dance, is the story of Nyra, a naïve and effervescent young woman who leaps into different lives across time in a quest to achieve enlightenment so that her spirit may return to Dyavaprthivi, the divine realm that exists between Heaven and Earth.
Kulkarni relates Nyra’s journey through spoken-word exposition and a combination of classical Indian dance—Bharatanatyam, Kathak—with modern contemporary movement. There isn’t much of a physical set, but it’s not necessary. Kulkarni’s expressive eyes, fluid gestures and nimble footwork adequately convey images of different times and places, people and situations, conflicts and resolutions.
Nyra elucidates her humble origins. Born to a lower-caste family in India, Nyra is surrendered to the gods to train as a Devadasi, a female artist whose life is devoted to worship and service to a deity, performing Bharatanatyam dance at temple rituals. As is common in patriarchal societies, Devadasis are objectified, concurrently treated as objects of holy significance and of sexual exploitation. During British rule in India, Devadasis became outlaws, persecuted to near-extinction.
Undeterred, Nyra transcends her earthly station. “I am Nyra,” she says, “I can remember my past lives… I am to be a god!”
Nyra embodies a joviality that belies the seriousness of her quest. Anyone familiar with Hindu tales, especially those of the eighth avatar of Vishnu, Lord Krishna, will recognize the use of lighthearted mirth to teach important lessons, a contrast to the more stoic tales of Judaism and Christianity.
Nyra acts out her first quest toward enlightenment, curating among humanity to find a candidate to whom she asks the question whether they like being alive or not. “Yes?” is the stunned woman’s response. Nyra, who had not prepared any follow-up questions, is more perplexed than when she started, but an answer is an answer so… success!
Humor and pathos extend to the dancing. Nyra’s right elbow and shoulder act independent of her body. When she is confused about what to do next, the elbow spasms like the needle of a compass. It pulls her. Whacks her. Sends a hand to crawl spiderlike across her face. The entire right side of Kulkarni’s body twists and writhes as the left side rushes to keep up, giving the impression that there are two dancers on stage instead of one.
The fusion between Western contemporary and classical Indian dance is seamless and gives a fresh dimension to both without diminishing either. Kulkarni reminds me of watching Katherine Dunham on film, whose juxtaposition of jazz and West Indian dance is at the same time familiar and like nothing you’ve seen before.
My only gripe is in the transitions from acting to dancing. They start and stop suddenly, small speed bumps that slow the show’s momentum.
The finale is a projected video that shows the physical embodiments of Nyra’s past lives. One avatar strenuously ponders the mysteries of the universe while lying across a couch. Another incarnation dances in a temple and bows low beneath a colorful mosaic. Yet another steps delicately through a lush forest, brushing aside branches of pinnate leaves. The film is a fun surprise—how closely did your imagination match up with the characters on screen?
“Nyra’s Dreams” is a satisfying combination of dance, acting, historical fact and mythic lore. Kulkarni adroitly brings to life the character of Nyra, playfully animated and supported by serious dance technique and storytelling skills. The well-rounded fullness of this one-person show makes it one for the ages.
“Nyra’s Dreams” is presented by Prop Thtr and SurTaal Dance and runs through November 19 at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 West Chicago. Tickets are $20, or pay what you can, and are available at Shalakak.com/surtaaldance.