Transcendence and Mystery in Tiny Gestures
Alastair Macaulay, The New York Times
March 11, 2011
WASHINGTON — For the first 20 days of March, India is to be found in many parts of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts here. Cuisine, fabric, visual art, music, film, literature and theater, as well as dance, are all part of its Maximum India festival. The foyers of the building have been unusually full. Audiences have included American women in saris and Indian men wearing sports jackets.
I’m sorry that I was able to catch only four companies in three evening performances. These presented only a small range of what Indian dance can cover. Three of them — though widely divergent in style — offered examples of bharatanatyam,the multidimensional performance form deriving from the southeastern province of Tamil Nadu. The fourth, the Daksha Sheth’s company “Sarpagati — Way of the Serpent” (on Tuesday), was an example of fusion, combining — so the program notes say — elements from Kathak (the complex classical dance from north India), Mayurbhanj Chhau (the martial/tribal dance from east India), Kalaripayattu (the martial art from Kerala in the deep south) and Mallakhamb (aerial techniques from western India).
Some of these — notably “Sarpagati” — were audience hits that bore little interest for me. Others, however, showed how Indian forms can provide some of the most transcendent experiences that dance has to offer. On Thursday I took a Washington friend with little experience of any dance theater and none of Indian forms to see Malavika Sarukkai in “Sakthi Sakthimaan”; after her final dance, his immediate response was that it had brought him as near to being out of body and out of mind as he could imagine from live performance. I felt much the same.
One important difference was the use of live music by Ms. Sarukkai and, in the second half of the previous evening, by Ragamala Dance: the closeness of the liaison between music and dance was often bewitching. But that can’t explain all the differences. There was live music for “Sarpagati,” too, without there being any intimate connection between sight and sound. So I’ll just say briefly that most of “Sarpagati” and much of the three dances shown by Dakshina in the first half of Wednesday evening seemed to amalgamate aspects of East, West, traditional and modern in ways that felt like tepid compromises.
By contrast, no sooner had either Ragamala Dance (an American company of the Indian Diaspora) or Ms. Sarukkai (an internationally renowned soloist from India) begun, than every moment seemed precise, specific, focused. From those sharply defined beginnings arose complexities both rapturous and profound. The Ragamala musical instruments were actually an excellent example of fusion: for “Gangashtakam,” the instruments included the mrindangam and nattuvangam and violin — though producing sounds that most Westerners seldom associate with the violin.
“Gangashtakam” — concerning the flow and worship of the river Ganga (Ganges) — is a solo for Aparna Ramaswamy. Quickly she demonstrates just how many parts of the body are used in bharatanatyam (individual fingers, different parts of the sole of the foot, the spine tipped in many ways, eyes, head, arms and legs), the volumetric fullness with which a single dancer can become thrillingly three-dimensional, and the wide supply of rhythms and dynamic contrasts that enrich this form.
Every change of focus registers keenly. The swaying pliancy of the torso becomes deeply sensuous. (No dance form flatters the curves of the female torso more than that of India.) A simple, bouncing walk toward the audience and back is delivered with a subtlety that made it far from simple in its effect. Gestures ranging from small to large indicate the growth of the river, and their fluency its current.
But it is when it comes to meaning that we see differences between Indian and Western dance theater yet greater than those between Indian and Western music. In this solo about the Ganges, Ms. Ramaswamy seems now to embody the river, now to indicate it, now to worship it; and the forms of expression alternated between detailed mime gestures to the kinds of pure dance that seem as abstract and as impersonal as a human being can ever achieve. The dancer seems continually to move between different kinds of being and of thought, and the Western observer is aware of many layers of mystery. In the second Ragamala dance, “Yathra” (“Journey”), five women dance to music for sitar and Indian cello. The work traces the course of a day and, by implication, a life. Dance themes are iterated by successive performers with different inflections. When, in the autumnal twilight-of-life solo near the end, we recognize some of the same material that had been shown in the brighter earlier section, the effect is movingly meditative. This is an excellent company; Ms. Ramaswamy is an enchantingly beautiful dancer.
At first, the beauties of Ms. Sarukkai’s dancing on Thursday seemed less remarkable. In particular, her torso does not tip with the freedom of Ms. Ramaswamy’s. But her spell kept changing and growing. Her three solos were “Mahesa Tandavam” (“The Dance of Shiva”), “Eka Lakhshyaha Margaha” (“The Many Paths to the One”) and “Mahishasuramardini” (“The Fall of the Demon”). It’s tempting to dwell on the mythological, religious and philosophical intentions of these works — both the program notes and a spoken introduction helped with these — and yet it may be better to observe that the meanings of Ms. Sarukkai’s dancing seem to arise primarily out of the intense contrasts she makes between different facets of dance itself.
Stillness or motion; gesture or rhythm; legato or staccato; left or right; open or closed; aggressive or benign — these and other oppositions became thrilling in Ms. Sarukkai’s extraordinarily long solos. (The program lasted almost 90 minutes; she was seldom offstage for long.) After a complex series of phrases around the stage, she will suddenly hold a pose on one leg that becomes a statement of heroic tranquillity. Her hands and fingers frequently flutter in close response to a drum or other instrument; now they hover or travel in flight, then they change to declarative gestures of quite another kind.
Her very face, with its rich cheekbones and calm mouth (often in a half-smile), keeps altering. You have no clue who she is. But, as with other great Indian dancers, you feel that far larger things are passing through her, and that you are in communion with them, too. As with Ms. Ramaswamy, some of the most transporting instances are ones of near-stillness, when the dancer seems to be inhaling the moment as if it were incense.
Maximum India runs through March 20 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington; kennedy-center.org.