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George Jackson Maximum India Review

Tradition & Change

3 Dance Companies: Tanusree Shankar, Dakshina / Daniel Phoenix Singh, Ragmala
Kennedy Center’s Maximum India Festival
Washington, DC
March 9, 2011

copyright 2011 by George Jackson

Intriguing instances of change in India’s dance traditions were on display Wednesday at the Kennedy Center. Looking at Tanusree Shankar’s choreography was like opening a time capsule from British colonial days. Daniel Phoenix Singh, a diaspora choreographer, deliberately and perhaps instinctively senses Western ways. Ragamala Dance, a diaspora company directed by Ramee and Aparna Ramaswamy, has evolved just as it might have at home in India – from within the artform.

Dance for Tanusree Shankar is like polite conversation on a veranda. Mostly it has a smooth and mellow flow. She gives her company of young men and women simple sorts of India steps and stances. They deliver them neatly, with the satisfied smiles of children who know they are being well behaved. However, I caught one or two of them with naughty glints in their eyes. As a story teller, Shankar doesn’t use those glances or even any tell-tale temperamental gestures to depict evil. Instead, she dresses her examples of sin and other impolite temptations as boogie men. With skulls on their costuming, they stomp around the stage, disrupting the nice boys’ and girls’ games. Virtue wins, of course, vice having been ignored rather than conquered.

If one looks hard, it is possible to see bits of ballet and of athletics infused into Tanusree Shankar’s movement blend but the bland consistency of it is, in a way, remarkable. Her themes – creativity, the landscape, bonding, yearning, life’s journey – are not untypical of India’s dance although she only skims their surface. Imitating animals, her choreography is naively reminiscent of Leonide Massine’s menagerie in his 1930s symphonic ballets. Syrupy music accompanies much of Mrs. Shankar’s dance. Maybe some aspects of her style derive from that of the legendary Uday Shankar, her father-in-law who performed ballet with Anna Pavlova while he was rediscovering his own culture’s dance. He, however, was vibrant on stage. I’m amazed that Tanusree Shankar’s genre is still viable. (The Tanusree Shankar Dance Company performed at 6 PM in the Eisenhower Theater.)

Photo by Stephen Baranovics

For three distinct works, Daniel Phoenix Singh took what he needed from India and the West. His “Bell Song” is about prayer, romance and celebration. It pairs India’s flexed hands with ballet’s pointed feet. Bodies that stretch into arabesqe as if owning space then fold, pulling the world in with their breath. There are passages when the dancers sway, like bells, that could be either East or West. In a love duet, the couple (Stacey Yvonne Claytor and Singh) holds hands like in “Giselle”. The different associations aren’t annoying. Singh uses diverse movement tastefully, with pattern and balance in mind, so the ancestry of a step or stance is just a bit of added dimension. The final pose of “Bell Song” was slightly mistimed at this performance. As a whole, the piece starts and develops promisingly, but by the end I wanted more growth.

“Pushpanjali” is a very Indian dance for five women. They pray and display themselves as flowers might, opening up to the light. Singh plays with flower arrangements, patterns such as 2-1-2 and 2 vs. 3. Quite effective was the sudden final pose as the music’s patter went on.

In Singh’s “Vasanth”, a mythological “Rite of Spring”, I think I see most clearly his intentional and his instinctive use of Western movement within an Indian context. The principal characters in this story are from India’s pantheon whereas the human chorus moves and groups itself like modern dancers – Anna Sokolow moderns. Singh contrasts and combines the two, making the result work. Particularly effective were the coiling, snaking formations. A crucial performance was Sudah Radhakrishnan’s as the whimsical figure of Spring (Vasantha). Graham Pitts, as the Cupid figure, was the spring sacrifice. The final celebratory dance, after Cupid is reborn and Spring reclaims her season, has a Western hoedown dynamic despite steps from India’s classical vocabulary. It is this inspiration which I suspect wasn’t deliberate. Both “Pushpanjali” and “Vasanth” were premiers. The latter sprawls as yet.

Ragamala Dance concentrates on core classicism. This includes new ideas, novel forms, and innovations that result when master practitioners engage with the tradition. The first of Ragamala’s two dances, “Gangashtakam” – focused on the traditional task of presenting a topic with already available tools. The second dance, “Yathra (Journey)”, was a set of variations on tradition that added up to being a reformulation, a new example.

Is there another dance form as demanding as India’s classical solos? Seldom are these solos short. The dancer may have to sustain them for an hour or two. Every moment, including the most mimetic or contemplative, must register as dance. Stillness, even, is active. Neither the steps nor the stances are casual. Technique is required, as taxing and distilled as ballet’s. Also essential is persona. Only the dancer alone can enliven her own body, engage with the music and offer herself to the beholder. No wonder that the intended ultimate audience may be a god.

Maximum India has shown some remarkable solos so far. Wednesday evening’s “Gangashtakam” was one of them. The title refers to the river Ganges, its physical flow and significance for the spirit. The dancer, Rapana Ramaswamy, is a handsome woman totally fluent with the flexed fingers, assertive arms, folded postures, the footwork’s commands and chatter and the expressive concentration of the Bharata Natyam style of classicism. Like all classical styles it is clear and measured but it also likes to be emphatic, vigorous. Ramaswamy made the solos’ percussive passages and narrative sequences count as movement design. Yet she seemed a touch harsher than needed, even for virtuosity. Navigating the solo’s spectrum of moods, Ramaswamy shifted gears efficiently yet a little mechanically. She reminded me of the ballerina Diana Vishneva, who also dances with a brilliantly calculated technique.

The dance I found innovative, “Yathra (Journey)” took the idea of the solo and divided it unequally among seven women. It traces not only an actual and symbolic journey but opens seven distinct temperaments, seven individual personalities, to our view. If a god were watching, would he judge them or take delight in their differences and similarities? The piece wasn’t just a sequence of solos but had measures of counterpoint between a soloist and some of the other women.Timing, the different lengths of variations, was a factor. So were the dialogues between a dancer and the principal musical instrument, the Indian cello.

The dancers for this neoclassical “Journey” were Bria Borcherding, Amanda Dlouhy, Jessica Fiala, Tamara Nadel and three Ramaswamy – Ashwini, Aparna and Ranee. Choreography was by the two latter Ramaswamy. The cellist Saskia Rao and the sitarist Shubhendra Rao composed the music for the very human wanderers.

(Singh’s Dakshina and Ragamala Dance shared the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater on Wednesday, beginning at 7:30 PM.)