Nrityagram’s enthralling 95-minute programme of four works to live music at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival began with Bijayini Satpathy ensconced in a cone of light. Suddenly this paragon of Nrityagram style pounced into the air to land in a wide warrior stance as her ankle bells jangled fiercely: a fitting introduction to an Odissi troupe that springs higher and moves bigger than almost anyone without sacrificing an iota of clarity or precision.
Women in Indian classical dance tend to favour the ground. But these six women galloped while twirling in the air and bounded up from their haunches like Russian dancers. Meanwhile the upper body swayed and the arms angled at every joint, including the exquisitely arranged fingers. Without betraying Odissi history, the women possessed a modern breadth and power.
Their vibrancy would not have registered so keenly without Surupa Sen’s exceptional choreography, particularly for the group. According to tradition largely a solo form, Indian classical dance has succumbed to the ensemble but rarely justified it. Nrityagram’s artistic director, however, transforms islands of activity into an archipelago that stretches across the stage. She zooms in on a dancer by having the others freeze in distinct poses like adjacent pages in a flipbook. She scatters our attention with troupers flitting in and out from the wings, and gathers it up again when they form a circle centre-stage. Sen has writ large the romance between line and curve that distinguishes Odissi.
Yet the dances excited more than the eyes. They maintained the fervour of an art born in temples where spiritual worship took inspiration from carnal love. Nrityagram tends to emphasise the humble devotee over the fearsome god. Among the dancers, Sen proved the most susceptible of these worshippers. In the duet Lalita Lavanga with the formidable Satpathy and in the solo Aali, she moved through the stages of romantic obsession, from giddy excitement to coy petulance to abject grovelling to her head lolling back on her elegant neck in complete abandon.
Festival continues to November 16, whitelightfestival.org