Arjuna’s Dilemma at BAM, New York

Arjuna’s Dilemma in performance: a review

BAM Next Wave Festival, 5th November 2008

Dunia Best Sinnreich

Arjuna’s Dilemma, performed at the BAM Harvey Theater, is a post-modern journey through the text of the Bhagavad Gita. The multimedia opera written by Douglas Cuomo blended early Christian choral music with classical Indian music and a little bit of improvisational jazz. While it was musically very emotive and poignant, the performance left me grasping for deeper meaning.

The upper and lower levels of the set were joined by a huge staircase, which united Arjuna’s mind with the battlefield below on which he had to slay all his relations. Video projected behind the upper level served as a translator for lines sung in Urdu and Sanskrit, and for the emotional trials set before Arjuna. Between lines of text flowed images such as a rope pulled to breaking point. It was a great uniting force for the piece.

The voices of the women’s chorus were beautifully arranged and gave extra weight to the words of the Krishna. Images of battle were the most effective moments in the choreography, with the five women exchanging places as victims and aggressors.

Violinist Joyce Hammann beautifully accompanied Arjuna’s visions of Krishna. Badal Roy threw in his special brand of funky tabla, perfected over the years accompanying music legends like Miles Davis. At one point saxophonist Bob Franceschini walked over to the chorus and drew the women together into a tight circle. The instrumental ensemble worked best when all the players could collectively catch a groove, which was notably infrequent.

Tony Boutté as Arjuna has a beautiful, clear voice that easily handles the melodies in the music. He was courageous as a warrior with Krishna, portrayed by John Kelly at his side. They stood high on the upper platform of the set above the crowded orchestra and chorus. Krishna was voiced by vocalist Humayun Khan, who combines classical Indian vocal techniques with Persian traditions. Krishna’s movements were non-human, but without intention. They evoked the memory of some of the ancient Hindu paintings and classic Krishna postures. I would have liked to see more grandeur in his movements, especially during the part of the poem where Krishna is elaborating on his true physical form [Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 11]. It seemed in this performance that Krishna just does a lot with his hands and has a mean navasana (boat pose).

Arjuna’s voice was strong and sweet, but the power of what he was witnessing was a little lost, perhaps due to the choreography. The women’s chorus at times suffered from an excess of movement as well, losing vocal quality and distracting from more powerful imagery on the stage.

Arjuna’s Dilemma evoked the complexity of consciousness as portrayed by the Bhagavad Gita. Douglas Cuomo’s album, which features Badal Roy and Tony Boutté, is exceptional and should not be missed. I only missed the strength of the sight and truth that Krishna brings to Arjuna. He made a lovely charioteer but could be a better god.

Dunia Best Sinnreich is a New York-based musician, and the lead vocalist for the soul, groove and jazz band Brave New Girl

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