Drive East, La Mama, New York – review

Finally New York dance junkies have an alternative to an August spent gazing at YouTube videos. In its second year, Drive East offers three consecutive shows per day (until Sunday) in various modes of Indian classical music and dance, whether diasporic or directly from India. That the festival runs young, with most of the performers under 40, is its promise and its risk.

The opener, mridangam master Rajna Swaminathan’s local sextet Rajas, landed soundly on the promise side. Her pieces for violin, horns, percussion guitar and her own deft drumming wedded beauty by courting chaos, with the methods of loose-knit latter-day jazz at the service of a recognisably south-Asian melody and pulse.

The solo dance concert that followed was more unripe than fresh. In her early 20s, Canadian Nivedha Ramalingam has already found her legs – and arms, hands, eyes as well as elastic knees – in traditional bharata natyam. The form’s practitioners, who typically perform into their 70s, can rarely sustain such brisk tempos for an hour or bound in and out of deep pliés or balance like a boulder. More impressive still, Ramalingam etched each intricate step – and nowhere in dance are the moves more baroque – with diamantine clarity.

But she has yet to figure out what to be clear about. In bharata natyam even a simple transitional step such as a backward stride signifies. The dancer’s gaze swings right and left like a queen surveying her kingdom – us. How much more telling, then, is the sublimely charged moment when she fastens an imaginary necklace around her neck in preparation for her beloved. Ramalingam’s fingers did not meet at her nape before she was on to the next move. And when she cupped her hands at her diaphragm like a lotus, it was again too fast: even a make-believe heart opens slowly.

But all was not lost. First, she has a real capacity for stillness – in the dance’s first moments, she paused between poses as if to announce, “I am here”. Plus, she could be fierce. Eyes flashing, she sent a spear into an invisible enemy with enough force to make you feel the pierce of flesh. The dance world could use more women warriors, and for that Nivedha Ramalingam is ready.

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