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Mumbai dance master and New York tap star shine in India Jazz Suites

To hear Sharon Litwin's WWNO public radio piece on India Jazz Suite, click here.

Pandit Chitresh Das, one of India’s foremost dance masters, and Jason Samuels Smith, an Emmy-award winning American tap star, are bringing their innovative approach to dance to New Orleans this weekend in a high energy East-meets-West music and dance event.. The performances, presented by the New Orleans Ballet Association and the NOCCA Institute, will take place at NOCCA’s Freda Lupin Memorial Hall (2800 Chartres Street), on Friday, November 8, and Saturday, November 9, at 8 p.m, with a third performance on Sunday, November, 10 at 2 p.m.

Das, 69, met Smith, 33, when both were practicing dance steps backstage during the 2004 American Dance Festival. What started as an impromptu dance “jam” session between them grew into a full-length India Jazz Suite production -- bringing together the centuries-old Kathak classical dance tradition of North India and the uniquely American tap dance style.

A child prodigy, Chitresh Das, who was taught by one of the great dance gurus of his youth, is now himself a committed guru, having trained many dancers who have gone on to establish their own careers. In 2009, he was chosen as a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honor a traditional artist can receive from the United States government.

Jason Samuels Smith is a performer, choreographer and director who held leading roles in the Tony Award-winning Broadway show, Bring in Da’Noise, Bring In Da’Funk. He has appeared twice as a special guest on Fox’s hit series So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars. He has been instrumental in helping to develop Tap Dreams, a worldwide documentary/global exchange that auditions young tap dancers in other countries and offers scholarships to attend the most popular tap festivals in the U.S.

 “When we first met, literally our first conversations were ‘jamming’ backstage,” Smith recalls of his first non-verbal encounter with Chitresh Das. “While we didn’t have an opportunity to perform together at that festival, backstage there was where we met and found common ground.”

For Das, who had long wanted to collaborate with a tap dancer, their meeting was his opportunity to investigate a new kind of dance direction. Since both dancers lived at that time in California, Das in Los Angeles and Smith in San Francisco, they began working and performing together up and down the West Coast, creating and perfecting their own cross-cultural presentation.

India Jazz Suites is divided into four acts -- with each artist performing both solo and together, accompanied by live music; Das’s musicians perform on sitar, tabla and harmonium, Smith’s on piano, bass and drums.

For both artists, their almost mystic forays into improvisation are what the performances are all about.

“Our collaboration is very organic,” Das explains. “Because we don’t know what’s coming next. It just goes on. My guru’s teaching says that dancing in such a way -- the stage, the people, the lights, the music -- everything becomes one. Ultimately, we don’t think of anything. We just dance and dance and dance.”

For ticket information about India Jazz Suites, call the NOBA Box Office at 504-522-0996 or purchase them online. Single tickets are $50; students with a valid ID can purchase them for $35.

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]