© The Financial Times Ltd 2013 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
August 21, 2013 6:04 pm
The doggiest days of August, when New Yorkers stuck in the city get to feel sorry for themselves, have bloomed into an oasis of Indian classical dance and music. Besides the usual, marvellous Erasing Borders festival sampler under Battery Park’s plane trees, Drive East – modelled on Chennai’s jam-packed January festival – debuts at La Mama this week.
Despite the vagaries of free outdoor shows, Erasing Borders offered a tight two hours of manifold classical dance idioms: finely percussive, whirling kathak; mohiniyattam, as voluptuous and roiling as a cloud; spritely kuchipudi; rigorously sensual odissi; and that mother of all classical forms, bharatanatyam. Drive East adds to the pantheon the epic theatre of kathakali and dance’s musical counterparts for a total of 12 dance and 15 music concerts (until Sunday).
If Erasing Borders drew a democratic horde, including obtrusive snappers and a troop of children on a field trip, the three consecutive opening-night concerts at La Mama’s black box attracted a largely Indian and aficionado crowd, intently engaged. When Hindustani flautist Jay Gandhi took his mournful, divine birdsong on what must have been an unexpected course, listeners shook their heads in admiring disbelief. (The whole thing sounded unbelievable to me.) But Drive East is also aiming young, as the entertaining opening act made loud and clear. Taalika’s trio of riot grrl tabla players cranked the amp to 11, hit the drums hard (though somehow also articulately) and chanted their Indian do-re-mis as if at a protest rally. Ear-splitting fun!
What the festivals have in common this year is Rama Vaidyanathan. The 30-something bharatanatyam master is a persuasive bundle of contradictions. An astounding actress and mime, she is also disarmingly guileless. She exudes a maternal authority, but no one skips about the stage more adorably. She is down to earth but refers more explicitly to the divine than most of her peers.
For Erasing Borders, Vaidyanathan kept to “pure dance”, which in bharatanatyam is gratifyingly diagrammatic, like Renaissance perspective painting. The arms and legs point side, front and diagonal. The dancer’s bouncy strut heads to corners. Even the fingers’ unlikely configurations are mainly rectilinear. And yet Vaidyanathan brought such radiant stillness to the full stops between moves that her limbs seemed to extend to the four corners of the earth (you know, when it had corners). In fact, she regularly evoked the metaphysical by means of the physical. A wave rippling through her torso to convey a peacock fanning its tail also suggested our awareness of the bird’s transformation and the phenomenon of transformation itself, whether of perception or feathers.
For Drive East, Vaidyanathan approached the transcendent head on. Her 100-minute solo Mad and Divine, with gorgeous live accompaniment for voice, drum and violin, enacted the spiritual seeking of Janabai and Lalded, medieval mystic poet-saints. It is a daunting task to show what the third eye “sees”, and Vaidyanathan too often fell back on the look of ecstasy – the shining crazed eyes, the chest falling open to receive the spirit. When she did succeed in translating the experience, it was because of ingenious means. She moved through essential bharatanatyam positions as a form of meditation. She evoked religious enthusiasm by dancing not like the masterful bharatanatyam practitioner that she is but like a devout peasant, drunk as much on movement as the divine, feet stamping hard in what I could have sworn was dust – spirit yoked to the homely world.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.