In the final, postponed offering of Lincoln Center’s Sandy-stricken White Light Festival, it was no surprise that Malavika Sarukkai danced alone. Bharata natyam is traditionally a solo form, with only the musicians to fill out the stage. But at the Baryshnikov Arts Center the dancer’s solitude and singularity felt meaningful. Sarukkai’s Yatra (Seeking) brought to startling life the shopworn metaphor of the “spiritual journey” for the hour a bharata natyam dancer struts upon the stage. Sarukkai began as a stately middle-aged woman and grew progressively younger until finally she seemed ageless.
She arrived at this wondrous state by paradoxical means. She did not purify herself of human idiosyncrasy so much as do the opposite – temper the idiom’s ornate stylisation with the body’s gravity and jags of impulsiveness. After a mesmerising rhythmic tryst with her two stupendous drummers, she dropped suddenly to the ground in prostration. As one of Krishna’s maiden cowherds, she executed a typical feminine move – sloping the wrist downward so it continued the line of the arm – with such percussive flair that you felt her ardour with her grace. And her deer gallops sprang straight up in spontaneous alarm, her legs in natural parallel rather than turned out.
Her fluttery fingers and wrists also departed from the norm. As Krishna the flautist, Sarukkai voluptuously massaged the air. As one of his seductive devotees, she sketched a fiery silhouette around her frame that suggested flames of love were consuming her. And throughout the evening, her exceptional five-member ensemble supplemented the carnatic music with the accelerating heartbeat of Hindustani drumming: soaring voice and violin joined to tumultuous tattoo, spirit to passion.
Sarukkai’s impulse was not only to increase the pulse but also to distil. She could arrive at the heart of a figure as directly as Matisse in his old age. She captured the loft of a soaring bird simply by the pace of her walk and the tilt of her extended arms. And she presented a Shiva pilgrim in the depths of worship by substituting the heavy thunk of her heel for shimmery beats. As she sank into deep plié, her gaze grew so calm and unblinking that her heavy black eyeliner seemed to disappear, along with the room and everybody in it except the godhead.