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Erasing Borders: Festival of Indian Dance - Concert II

by Mindy Aloff
June 5, 2010
Asia Society
725 Park Avenue
(at 70th St.)
New York, NY 10021
212-288-6400
During 2010, New York has been the happy beneficiary of brilliant programs featuring traditional and exploratory East Indian and South Asian dancers. April and May, alone, brought two outstanding arrays. In late April, Symphony Space presented "Tongues Untied," an anthology evening of narrative and storyless works in a mind-boggling variety of dance traditions and styles from India, Pakistan, and other contiguous nations, and from native dancers of those countries who have settled in the U.S. (The performance was part of a week-long dance festival around Manhattan produced by Engendered, which describes itself as "a trans-national arts and human rights organization focused on creating awareness around issues of gender and sexuality in South Asia and its Diaspora.") And, in late May, two consecutive evenings at Asia Society focused on several dance traditions of India exclusively, with, for spice, a sprinkling of satirical postmodern inventions by performers of Indian heritage. (These evenings were part of "Erasing Borders: Festival of India Dance," co-produced by Asia Society and the Indo-American Arts Council.)

There was some overlap among presenters and curators of the two events; for example, Rajika Puri, the respected exponent of bharata natyam and odissi styles, performed on "Tongues Untied" and served as a curator of "Erasing Borders." Although the "Tongues Untied" evening focused primarily on works for groups (with a few soloists), while the "Erasing Borders" performances were made up principally of soloists (with a couple of groups), the preponderance of women as dancer-choreographers on all the programs and in the pedagogical talkbacks and seminars for both venues conveyed the sense of an overarching sensibility. My Barnard faculty colleague Uttara Coorlawala, a key consultant for both of these programs, summed it up, I think, at the press conference for "Tongues Untied," when she spoke of Indian dancers in performance as being instruments capable of inhabiting either gender—as being, in essence, Blakean angels who can, while dancing, distance themselves from their own physical identities to inhabit all the characters, male and female, warriors and lovers, in a given story.

Of the many soloists and groups I saw this spring, the outstanding exponents of this perspective were the dancers of the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, the small, fearsomely disciplined collective of women from the world-famous "dancing village" in the state of Karnataka, in southern India, who practice several dance traditions, with Odissi dancing first among equals. As I recall, one of their works at Symphony Space—in which these beautiful young women transformed themselves into terrifying, larger-than-life warriors, entirely through dancing—lasted some 40 minutes by the clock, although it felt as if we were being transported into a universe where clocks have no hands. These extraordinary artists do something I've only read about: Without visibly rearranging their expressions, they make their faces and figures look utterly different from moment to moment, as if they were passing through so many full-body masks. At several points in the warrior sequence, they clicked their eyeballs forward, so that they seemed nearly to pop from their sockets; it was truly unbelievable, and truly terrifying. Peter Brooks's epic version of The Mahabharata, which I saw in one nine-hour sitting, never—even in its war-of-the-world scenes—ever achieved the awesome horror effected by these dancing ladies, entirely through physical discipline and superhuman dedication. The Nrityagram dancers also persuasively "told," through dancing, alone, of the piercing melancholy from unrequited love, which drives many of the storytelling dances of India no less than the literature and song lyrics of Medieval Europe. However, in this type of story, they were matched in terms of beauty and expressiveness by Kalanidhi, the youthful, all-women, U.S. company of Kachipudi dancers, with their delicate transitional maneuvers, which give their dancing tremendous lightness and silky texture, and their charming, almost whimsical balletic leaps, which give their dancing a quality of gamboling nymphs.

The first "Erasing Borders" evening at Asia Society was attended by several critics, as well as stars from several circles of the New York dance world. It has been carefully reported upon elsewhere. As it happens, though, I seem to have been the only reviewer to have attended the second evening, which offered a nearly complete change of artistic personnel, and so I focus on that. I'm happy to report that the generally high standards of the first evening were sustained in the second. Although, on this second festival program, there were no exponents of Odissi dancing—that gorgeous style in which all the sculptural poses, and the movements that elide them, appear to be variations on the sinuosity of an "S" curve, even, amazingly, in parts of the body, such as the forearm or the shin, which normally give the appearance of straight lines—we were treated to two very individual versions of the more geometrical bharata natyam tradition. The first of these was the softly feminine presentation of Mythili Prakash, whose bi-partite opening dance, called Vibha ("Lustrous Glory"), extolled, in its Apollonian opening section ("Surya"), the sun god riding his seven-horse chariot and then, in its second section ("Khuda Ki Tasveer," or "Portrait of God"), idealized—by way of a poem from the Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi, popularized by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan—what the dancer terms in her program note "the divinity of the guru, a physical manifestation of the Absolute, who has broken free from worldly bonds and guides each of us to the same." I'm not sure I recognized god or guru per se, although a remarkable promenade in place for Ms Prakash—posed on one leg, whose instep, inching counterclockwise, described 180 degrees of a circle, so that her entire body constantly reoriented itself while not seeming to turn at all—was this side of divine.

The second presentation of bharata natyam, the solo Chaurapanchasika ("50 Cantos"), by the much-anticipated Mesma S. Belsare ("she's a wonder," one Odissi dancer of my acquaintance said of Ms Belsare), began with a kind of half-plié and ended with fast, 360-degree turns for the entire body: "pure bliss," my notes read. Ms Belsare is a tall, angular, lean, and extremely decisive dancer, with a modernist's inclination to effect sudden and severely specific dance images, which makes her an incisive and memorable performer. The program note for 50 Cantos—a dance triptych, whose aesthetic viewpoint and gestures are based on 12th-century miniature paintings in the collection of the art history scholar Sri N.C. Mehta—tells us that the title refers to "a set of 50 verses by the 12th-century Kashmiri court poet Bilhana. When the forbidden love between poet Bilhana and princess Champavati is discovered, the king issues orders for Bilhana's beheading. While being led to his execution chamber, Bilhana composes 50 . . .cantos in the chaura meter, reminiscing about his love in chaste Sanskrit. 50 Cantos is presented as Champavati's interpretation of what Bilhana sang in her memory, thereby erasing borders of the norm of who gets to tell this ill-fated love story." For a 21st-century American dancegoer, chivalric love of this density requires rather a lot of transposition to become emotionally relevant; however, the dance, itself—rather than the symbolic meaning of the dance—was bold and intensely communicative of appreciation and longing, and its feminist point of view seemed to evolve directly from Professor Coorlawala's idea of the dancer as a neutral vessel through whom the characters of a story pass. Ms Belsare's second dance on the program, Aksha ("Axis"), labeled as "bharata natyam/contemporary" and performed by the dancer in a velvety, India-ink-black sheath, seemed to go further in its mission to embody this idea through its presentation of the dancer with her back to us and her abstracting emphasis on arm and hand movements over facial expression. ("By taking away one of the key components of dance, the face, this piece makes a focal shift from the traditional angika {expression through the tangible body} to the sattvika fundamentals {expression of the pure and the intangible}, thereby challenging alike the dancer and her audience," is how the program note puts it.) Ms Belsare's stated mission of such abstraction was to effect a merging of the music (instrumental and vocals by Deepti Navaratna) and the dance, "so that the distinction between the two disappears and music and dance become inseparable." That didn't quite happen for me—artists often try to micromanage an audience's response, and my reaction is often to instinctively reject being micromanaged that way—although I could recognize what Ms Belsare was trying for. She clearly knows exactly what she wants from her dancing—and from those who watch her.

Kathak, the percussive dance of northern India, was the third classic tradition represented on this Asia Society evening. The three dancers were from the New York-based Parul Shah Company, performing an excerpt from a story ballet, Radha Naval, in which Radha, anticipating the arrival of her lover, Krishna, recollects (in the words of the program) "his mischief during the spring Holi festival, celebrated by smearing everyone with colored powder and drenching them with saffron-dyed water. Her reminiscences take her through a series of emotions—longing, frustration, and ultimately joy." The colored powder was, to my eyes, ineffable; however, the rolling series of emotions experienced by Radha (embodied by the choreographer) as she related to friends in what appeared to be a forest, again created entirely through dancing, were crystal clear. In much of the Kathak I've observed in New York, the emphasis has been pretty much on the musicality and virtuosity of the footwork; Ms Shah here added luminous port de bras, and the dynamics of her choreography emphasized an element liquefaction in the tattoos for the feet, rather than staccato articulation. Very fine—indeed, lovelier than her storyless contribution to the program on the night before.

Sheetal Gandhi, a choreographer and theatrical concept artist from Venice, California whose work has been presented by Cirque du Soleil (Dralion) and on Broadway (Bombay Dreams), contributed a thoroughly contemporary number that was a kind of dance-theater poem, in the nonlinear manner of postmodern poetry. Her body trembles; her hands are wings; she walks while performing contractions; she sings; her feet patter syncopations; she poses such verbal challenges aloud as, "Why can't I wear a tank top?" and (could my notes be wrong??) "I didn't have to grind my father's eyes with my new pestle." I didn't have a clue as to what was going on, but it was fascinating to feel increasingly powerless to comprehend her communication, especially in some of its Grand Guignol touches.

Finally, three nearly-naked gentlemen (Levi Philip Marsman, Jarvis McKinley, and Tyrone Walker) from Ailey II—the second company of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—gave an explosive and brilliant performance Takademe, a 1995 firecracker of a dance by Ailey's newly appointed artistic director, Robert Battle, to the infectious Indian analogue of jazz scat singing, here composed by Sheila Chandra. The only story I can report from this is that of three handsome, marvelously trained guys jumping in electrifying patterns, timed with the music to provide a lot of moment-by-moment aesthetic pleasure, which only added up to its moments. At the talkback following, the audience was told, "Don't interpret!" It was a command that went against the entire program up to Takademe, but, to paraphrase the immortal Ira Gershwin, who cared?
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