Many artists can be intimidated by the idea of collaboration, and with good reason; the added complications of working creatively with others demands a much more accomplished competence from everybody involved. For Josephine Lee, the President and Artistic Director of the Chicago Children’s Choir, collaboration is practically a vision, and one of her most expansive collaborative ideas will be on stage at the Harris Theater of Music and Dance, December 14th and 15th, with the return of Sita Ram. This is a collaborative accomplishment on a really significant scale.
Lee was just on stage at the Harris herself; the multitalented artist collaborated with River North Dance Chicago Artistic Director Frank Chaves on his beautiful The Good Goodbyes, set to an original piano score that Lee composed and performed live. The score was lyrical and forceful and filled with thought, and Lee’s performance was exceptional, yet as complex and challenging as such a partnership can be, Sita Ram is that and more.
Much more. Sita Ram is a full evening musical adaptation of the Indian classic Ramayana, an epic story that is as culturally significant today as it has been throughout the twenty-three centuries that young people in India have grown up hearing it. The performance at the Harris brings together an impressive array of talent and vision; the story was adapted for the stage by David Kersnar, with music composed by Grammy nominated composer Jai Uttal and performed by the Chicago Children’s Choir.
Lee approached Kersnar and Uttal in 2002 about the project, with an ambitious goal. Ten years later, she describes the work, saying that “the performance is an uplifting way to reflect the rich diversity of the globe and foster peace through cultural understanding.” That’s a bold undertaking, whose accomplishment in Sita Ram is as inclusive as it is coherent. The uniquely gifted dancers of Natya Dance Theater perform choreography by Associate Artistic Director Krithika Rajagopalan, joining a full cast of actors and actresses, along with twenty-three acrobats from the Inappropriate Theater Company, all of them in costumes by talented designer Azeeza Kahn of Atelier AZZA.
It’s an astonishing collaboration; each of the creative contributors could put on an impressive show by themselves, and in fact all of them have. David Kersnar, a founding ensemble member of Lookingglass Theatre Company, has a long list of acting and directing credits in theater, television and film, and Jai Uttal’s rich discography is only one measure of his pioneering work in the world music community. Natya Dance Theatre is one of the most critically acclaimed Indian dance companies in the United States, with appearances at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and too many other major venues to list, and Azeeza Kahn’s Atelier AZZA attracts a steady stream of attention and accolades. As for Josephine Lee, John von Rhein wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “under her watch, the Choir has become one of the nation’s finest,” and after the Harris shows, the Choir will bring their Sita Ram performance to India in a multi-city tour.
It requires vision from all of the artists involved in such a performance to put something as unique and captivating as Sita Ram together, and for the audiences who will see their performances at the Harris Theater, it promises to be as memorable as it is enjoyable.