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Washington Post 2011 Festival Review

Washington Post
Monday October 10, 2011
Pamela Kidron

The legendary Bharatanatyam exponent Leela Samson and her Kalakshetra Repertory Company danced so well Saturday at the Lincoln Theatre — in the concluding performance of the Fall Festival of Indian Arts — that the ultimate standing ovation was richly deserved.

Samson directs the Kalakshetra dance school in Chennai, India, that was founded by her guru, Rukmini Devi Arundale — one of the fiery greats of the 1930s who engineered the renaissance of Indian classical dance. Samson is a generation removed from those revolutionaries, which is reflected in the elegance and understated nature of her work.

What Samson creates remains complex, idea-driven Bharatanatyam, borne of Hindu mythology and raised for the connoisseur. Yet Samson also deploys mythology to ruminate on such abstract concepts as space, energy and form.

In “Spanda,” which formed the second half of Saturday’s programs, Samson has choreographed for a group, multiplying the energy of Bharatanatyam’s traditional soloist by eight (the number of dancers in the company). That is important because oftentimes this genre’s group choreography dilutes the force of a soloist by dividing it among numerous dancers of lesser value.

Samson’s choreography is clean, crisp and complex. Nary a gesture, glance or breath is unintentional or thrown away. Dancers contain their energy like pressure cookers and work in perfect synchrony.

The eight-dancer company benefited from having five men because the genre is generally dominated by women. (Besides Samson, the dancers were Viraja Aravind, KV Arun, Christopher Gurusamy, Sruthy Jayan, Girish Madhu, KR Sreenath and KP Rakesh.

Festival creator Daniel Phoenix Singh’s new work, “Vasanth,” which opened the program, was an excerpt from the Tamil epic “Kumara Sambavam” and described how the goddess of spring descended to Earth. Singh’s choreography has grown and strengthened over the years, and this piece successfully and freely incorporated elements of modern dance into its foundation of classical Indian dance.

What stood out at the conclusion was the difference in Singh’s and Samson’s complexity and sophistication — with Samson far outpacing Singh. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, because Samson is a mature artist and Singh a young one. Yet the difference might also be traced to the manipulation of the genre. The modern dance that Singh incorporates gives his work the open, relaxed feel of an American house whose door opens onto the street; Samson’s work retains the feel of a vibrant household well hidden behind a gate.

Kidron is a freelance writer.