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Nrityagram Review

The Legacy Continues

Friday, March 20, 2009 at 5:09pm

Nrityagram took the stage at Strathmore tonight, and from the opening invocation to the closing celebration it was a study in subtlety and perfection. The company lives in a modern day ashram setting where they devote their lives to dance, music and literature. The dancers displayed a rare mastery over the dance form Odissi, one of the classical dance forms of India.

The program began with a narrative dance titled “Praarambha” (The Hymn of Creation), from ancient Vedic texts. The piece begins in a misty setting and the dancers depict the sacrificial fire and depict the birth of life. The technical artistry of the dancers is impeccable, but what is noteworthy is their powerful intent and focus. Their body language was clearly readable from the promenade level as they shifted from a prayerful, respectful stance to portraying the power of the fire, and ultimately the majesty of the ONE from whom all life began.

The invocation seems like a typical opening dance in the idiom, till you watch the second performance of the evening “Chaya,” an abstract exploration of the Odissi vocabulary. The first dance depicted the oneness of things, and the second dance explored how the ONE is split into two, as “Chaya” (mirror image or shade). The dancers multiply on stage till we see a kaleidoscope of five dancers tracing intricate patterns in space, and mirroring the spatial patterns with their bodies as well. One example was where the dancers traced figure eights on the stage and mirrored this with the spirals of figure eights in their spines and arms at the same time. It seemed as if the ONE depicted in the first piece had created a galaxy for the dancers where they were moving in harmony while maintaining complicated orbits. Even in their abstract works, there is a connection to the evening’s theme of Pratima or Reflection, and the idea of reflection is explored both in the spirit as well as in the physical and spatial pathways of the dance.

This was followed by a narrative dance “Mugdha,” performed by Manasi Tripathy, Rasmi Raj and Pavithra Reddy. Typically a heroine tells of the enticing music that Krishna plays on his flute and how she is under his spell, hopelessly in love. Instead of the traditional solitary heroine longing for Krishna, this piece showed three women entranced by Krishna. Skillfully they create images with their lightning fast hand gestures and in a split second go from showing Krishna to becoming the enraptured heroine waiting for him. With all the gushing of the first teenage crush, this piece was a light and bubbly end to the first half.

After the intermission, the highlight of the evening “Vibhakta” (Division), was performed by Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy. Here they portrayed the well known story of the Ardhanarishwara incarnation of the eternal ONE where Shiva (male) and Shivaa (female) live as equals in one body with perfect harmony. In this particular interpretation, Shiva sings of Shivaa’s beauty and power, while Shivaa sings of Shiva’s majestic yet ascetic body. Thus, the dance becomes a love song instead of a linear narrative and takes us back full cycle where many are merged back into the ONE. Both Sen and Satpathy possess a powerful command of the stage. Along with their unquestionable command of technique, they have a delivery of intent that is read even from the upper rows of the balcony. The power of their abhinaya (emotive movements) comes not just from their myriad facial expressions, but they also recruit the body and its stances in conveying emotions. Both are equally comfortable moving at lightning fast tempo or when lingering in the loving embrace of an image straight out of the temple rock carvings. More than all of these details, the power of their dance comes from the absolute togetherness they project when performing side-by-side.

The evening closed with the celebratory “Aarati,” a ceremonial lighting of the lamps for the presiding deities of Odissi dance followed by a closing dance that brimmed with sheer joy.

Many Classical Indian dancers struggle with the transition from the solo format performed in the intimate settings of temples or palace halls to the enormous size of the proscenium stages. Nrityagram dancers effectively use the body to help magnify the facial expressions so that emotions are visible even from the farthest corners of the theater. And unlike other dancers who look past each other in the prescribed direction, these dancers look each other in the eye and the connection is palpable. Sen’s choreography counterbalanced the prevalent use of symmetry in Indian dance with frequent asymmetrical patterns that came as a delightful surprise and resolved back into the comfort of the symmetrical designs. It seemed as if the dancers had indeed transported us to Nrityagram, the dance ashram in which they live. And if only for an evening, we caught a glimpse of their magical world of dance. The company is flourishing under the leadership of Sen and Satpathy, and carries on the mantle of their founder Protima Bedi’s illustrious legacy.

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