The news was supposed to be Nrityagram’s collaboration with the Chritasena troupe of Sri Lanka, for a fusion of South Asian temple-dance idioms. But the two lovely young practitioners of the island’s Kandyan dance had little to add to their mainland neighbour’s ever-more complete and mesmerising elaboration of Odissi.
The lack of embroidery in Kandyan hints at its origins in exorcism ritual. The dancers – female here, though traditionally male and bare-chested – assumed a wide stance, with arms projecting out from the shoulders flat and stiff as a board, and responded to the crude drumbeat with one step per bonk. The idea seemed to be: root out the demon by emulating his monster machismo.
Nrityagram, by contrast, needed harmonium, flute, violin, voice and two-headed drum to do justice to its intricate gestures and rhythms. Voluptuous Odissi is organised around a figure of eight – the sign for infinity. The legs’ sweep, the sensuous slow heel-toe walk, the darting eyes, the roll of head on neck, the fan of fingers and the asymmetrical pose at the dance’s root all curve. Beside this wending poetry, Kandyan read like Dr Seuss.
Thankfully the Sri Lankans were limited to the beginning and end of the two-hour programme (until Sunday), so there was room for the real news: Nrityagram’s decade of experimentation has paid off. In the evening’s pièce de résistance, artistic director and choreographer Surupa Sen brilliantly met the challenge of classical dance: how it might speak in the language of now without being wrenched from its foundation.
In her meditation on Shiva, which she performed with stunning long-time troupe member Bijayini Satpathy, Sen did not forgo the iconic gestures: the flaming claw of a hand for Shiva rattling his drum or the palm waving beside the head for the Ganges flowing from his locks. But she scaled the steps to intensify the poetry and multiply the meanings. Sometimes you zoomed in – on a heel slowly touching the ground or on eyes crossing in mad zeal – and sometimes you zoomed out to take in the dancers’ fiery gallop or the weave of steps between them.
The effect was like having a third eye and seeing everything all at once. Of the Indian dance I have encountered, I have never been so dazzled or so moved.
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