Pleasing Deities, and the Eyes, With Storytelling Steps From India
Bharatanatyam and Odissi Dance Performances in New York
Siobhan Burke, The New York Times
October 8, 2013
The city’s dance world at this time of year offers no shortage of festivals, from the something-for-everyone programming at Fall for Dance to the genre-blurring lineup at Crossing the Line. While dancegoers flocked to those last week, a kind of inadvertent festival, the product of serendipitous timing, unfolded with less fanfare.
Classical Indian dance has a strong presence in Manhattan, but it’s rare for four solo practitioners of Bharatanatyam (a South India style) and Odissi (native to the northeast) to perform in town within a few days.
On Oct. 1 the venerable Leela Samson and Madhavi Mudgal, both based in Delhi, shared a bill at the Asia Society. On Saturday, Aparna Ramaswamy, a younger dancer from Minneapolis, lit up Pace University’s Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts. And at the Ailey Citigroup Theater on Sunday, New York’s own Rajika Puri gave a survey of her work, presented by the South Asian arts organization Navatman.
Together, these concerts afforded a close look at two highly codified dance forms, revealing nuances that can be hard to discern in a single evening.
Both Bharatanatyam and Odissi are largely storytelling traditions: Hindu scripture, physicalized. Dancers, channeling deities, might relate romantic dramas or turbulent sagas through elaborate, sculptural gestures. But for viewers not versed in these corporeal languages, the stories can be hard to decipher. As fascinating as Radha, Krishna and the whole pantheon can be, an untrained onlooker might wonder, Am I missing something?
That pesky question, of course, accompanies many experiences of watching dance. Ms. Mudgal and Ms. Samson — both in their 60s and both considered masters of their forms — reminded us that with Odissi and Bharatanatyam, as with any art, you don’t need to know everything to appreciate some things.
In Ms. Mudgal’s “Madhave Makuru Manini” — an Odissi work portraying the goddess Radha as “one who has quarreled with her beloved and sent him away” — the story didn’t matter as much as the dancer’s utter commitment to telling it. Every shift of weight, every darting glance, every hummingbirdlike flourish of the hands furthered the conversation she seemed to be having, with its shades of yearning, anger, surprise. Ms. Mudgal’s immersion in that material, regardless of its content, was enough to hold you captive.
The same was true of Ms. Samson, a more jovial if less mysterious performer, who offered the Bharatanatyam portion of the evening: a gentle, poetic vignette followed by a more bracing one, punctuated with percussive footwork. In a discussion after the show, the moderator (Ms. Puri, it so happened) remarked on the inward-looking intensity — and its radiance outward — of both performers. As one audience member said of their dancing, “You’re almost breathing it.”
If age brings a rich inner life, it also brings wear and tear on the body. Compared with these wise, grounded veterans, the ravishing Ms. Ramaswamy, perhaps a couple of decades their junior, exuded a brisk, eager energy in her hourlong program, “Sannidhi (Sacred Space).” Joined by four superb musicians, she gorgeously embodied the swooping violin; the plunking mridangam; the wailing, warbling vocals. Again, any fixation with “getting it” slipped away.
Ms. Puri, though, seems to care very deeply that we get it. A noted scholar of Indian dance, she has developed a more literal genre of danced storytelling, simultaneously narrating myths (most recently, scenes from Homer’s “Iliad”) in movement and words. In her lengthy program, “Sutradhari Natyam,” she guided us through her repertory.
Despite Ms. Puri’s inviting, intelligent presence and the novelty of her approach, the work, in all its theatrical exposition, felt overbearing. These eyes just wanted to see her dance.