Call + Response: A Day in Color

Composer: Noah Simpson + Filmmaker: Shilpa Sunthankar
Smith Rock State Park in Oregon photo by Ben Adams

So Much More Than Apple Pie

by Kristin Thiel
photos by Ben Adams

As day breaks wide in the first frames of Shilpa Sunthankar’s film “A Day in Color,” it’s easy to know we’re home in Oregon—and not just because the unmistakable Smith Rock hunches in the background. Noah Simpson’s original composition “Cahava Springs” starts as slow as that first cup of coffee, and as the clouds shift over the teasel, sagebrush, and wild rye, the dryness of this stretch of high desert is palpable.

But as anyone who has visited Central Oregon knows, the desert is teeming with life. Sunthankar, a producer and director with Portland-based PushStart Productions, showcases this in her film response to Simpson’s musical call. An abalone shell, bangles, earrings, and a hat come alive, drawn out from the desert grit by Simpson’s notes, and in turn, help to materialize a diversity of human dancers.

Ballet Folklórico Corazones Alegres dancers, Laisha Solis and Danika Montoya, and Afro Latin fusion artist, Malik Delgado pose at Smith Rock film shoot.

This collaboration was exhilarating for Sunthankar from the start, and she wanted to convey that “positive, celebratory” feeling to the audience. When she received the invitation from Montavilla Jazz Festival, she said, “I was stoked. I was utterly delighted.” Primarily, she was thrilled to work with Simpson. She has been a fan of his work for years, and he is one of her favorite musicians to see live. “I think I squealed,” she said when she remembered learning that she’d been paired with him. Used to hearing Simpson’s work live, and as an audience member, Sunthankar found it a wonderful challenge to interact with a recorded piece as a collaborator. For the first week or two of the project, she and Simpson spoke every couple of days, but their check-ins soon slowed. Simpson wanted to be hands-off and trust Sunthankar as a filmmaker and fellow artist.

Director Shilpa Sunthankar looks on during the filming of Northstar Native American dancer Perry Thompson.

Sunthankar was also interested in the project because she had been wanting to explore music video, a form she’s not as familiar with, and do so with jazz, one of her favorite musical styles. Of the three Call + Response collaborations, “A Day in Color” presents most like a music video. The narration is light, with a focus on the music, dancers, and setting responding to each other. Sunthankar wanted a “beautiful celebration of a lot of different communities and cultures,” so, after seeking talent from Painted Sky Music and Northstar Dance, Sunthankar and her team worked with Perry Thompson of the Navajo Nation; Shawna Ridgebear, also of the Navajo Nation as well as the Te-Moak Shoshone and Apache Tribes; and Soraya “Yaxla” Medina from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to create a dynamic and diverse powwow. Laisha Solis and Danika Montoya wove into the film the work of Latino Network’s Ballet Folklórico Corazones Alegres. Sridharini Sridharan added her twenty-five years of experience in India’s classical Bharatanatyam tradition. And Malik Delgado mesmerized with street dance from African diaspora and Latin traditions. In these dancers’ juxtaposition with Simpson’s music, Sunthankar sees magic made real.

Bharatanatyam dancer Sridharini Sridharan performs during film shoot at Smith Rock for A Day in Color.

Sunthankar grew up in an Indian American household in Colorado, but her greater community was as diverse as the dancers she gathered for “A Day in Color.” Now she lives in a city that is primarily white—but far from entirely white, and in explaining how Portlanders might think about where we live, Sunthankar drew on a personal memory. She remembered her childhood home filling with extended family and friends for Indian festivals, but also calling her friend for her grandma’s Chinese sesame chicken recipe, a dish Sunthankar still counts as one of her favorites. There are always many different communities in one place. “We don’t have to think of America as just the apple pie version; there’s so much more,” Sunthankar said. And just as the dancers in “A Day in Color” emerge from and then return to the rocky dirt at the foot of Smith Rock, “we’ve all become part of this land.”

Shilpa Sunthankar, Malik Delgado, Tara Johnson-Medinger, and Gary Nolton during filming of A Day in Color.