With a welcome breeze wafting off the Upper New York Bay and a huge lunchtime crowd watching transfixed, the finale of the Downtown Dance Festival’s generous week of free outdoor performances embraced as many arms of Indian dance as 90 minutes would permit.
The Erasing Borders programme began backwards, with Bollywood, a relative newcomer. The dances combined bouncy Indian folk rhythms with the veils, bare bellies, voluptuous arms and “come hither” glances of a hedonistic east borrowed from 1950s Hollywood, of all things. In a perfect Duck Soup update, the Mayuri Group we were watching hails from Russia, whose enthusiasm for Bollywood reaches back to the Cold War, when India supplied the Soviets with extra musicals. In one solo to the swinging 1958 ditty “Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu”, Natalia Fridman swished and galloped and batted her eyes more like Betty Boop than your average avenging Hindu goddess.
For that we had the splendid Kuchipudi dancer-actor Padmavani Mosalikanti as the vanquishing deity Durga. As the buffalo demon Mahishasura, her husband Jaikishore let down his guard: what could a mere woman do to him who had terrorised the universe? She knocked him to the floor and stabbed him with the trident of her three fingers as her eyes crossed with conquering fury. He gnashed his teeth and rolled his eyes in agony. It was glorious.
Having completed the task for which she was supernaturally born – through the combined powers of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu – this Durga folded one leg atop the other as if sitting on air and gazed out serenely like a sculpture in a shrine.
It is this devotional aspect of Indian dance that latter-day choreographers tend to emphasise, as did American Bharata Natyam practitioner Sonali Skandan with a section of Swarupa: Infinite Form, a meditative ensemble piece less to do with the gods than with our worship of them.
What is exceptional about the Indian tradition, however, is its expressive range – from human passion to the spiritual sublime – to which only the Kuchipudi pair aspired. Playing the gods, the Mosalikantis proved as erotically charged as the Bollywood cuties, though they aimed their charm at one another. Performing nritta (pure dance), they moved with radiant grace.