Nrityagram Dance Ensemble
New York, NY
February 20, 2008
by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2008 by Leigh Witchel
The “for export” product is often quite different than what is made at home. “Odissi is characterized by sensuousness and lyricism” the program for Nrityagram Dance Ensemble explained. We got more lyricism than usual in the current offering, “Pratima: Reflection,” which had its world premiere at the Joyce, and it gave a different impression.
The six-part program opened with a “Hymn of Creation.” A quartet gathered in a circle for an invocation in the blue half-light of dawn and praised the primordial force from which all others flowed. “Image” was an abstract quintet, and looked most like the works with which Nrityagram had captivated Western audiences before; the dancers stamped in precision and rotated with kaleidoscopic brilliance as the musicians played. “Image” also included bols, the rapid syllabification by the musicians that accompanies classical Indian dances, particularly the Kathak style.
Two pieces were derived from an epic Sanskrit poem, the Geet Govind, telling the love story of the god Krishna and the cowherd Radha. The poem is as familiar to Indians as the story of Romeo and Juliet is to us; on their previous visit Nrityagram had used material from the Geet Govind for group dances. In “Lost in Love,” Radha’s friend heralds Krishna’s arrival and exhorts Radha to go to him; followed by “Khandita,” where Radha berates Krishna after he has spent the night in another woman’s arms. After the intermission, “The Division,” a duet about male-female coexistence was performed – interestingly by two women. The dancers in the company are female; the men are musicians playing instruments at the side. One could tell almost immediately what sex the character was by a subtle but obvious shift in stance – chest up, shoulders back and suddenly a woman depicts a man. With so many performance traditions of the opposite it is fascinating to see masculine stereotypes seen through women’s eyes. “Offering” closed the program with a play of handheld lights and a procession off the stage.
What made previous programs exciting to westerners were the quicker sections that showed off the most immediately accessible aspects of the company; Sen’s talented choreography for groups and the precision of the dancers together. The dancers are brilliantly synchronized, even to the point of looking over-drilled on their last visit. This program was more contemplative and moved at its own deliberate pace, but it was a rough on Western eyes. The first half of the program had very few tempo variations and the two halves of the program didn’t balance, assumedly because Sen wanted to keep the two pieces on the Geet Govind together. The past few Nrityagram shows have come to New York after having been performed a great deal; their last visit came at the end of a tour of several months. We saw this work before all the kinks had been worked out. The roughest, because it represents a compromise, is the pacing. It would help for us if there were more variations in tempo. But the Indian sense of time and pacing doesn’t match ours; it’s more leisurely, and the point of Odissi is not to create an Indian version of the Rockettes.
copyright © 2008 by Leigh Witchel
Photos by Jack Vartoogian:
Top: Bijayini Satpathy and Surupa Sen
Bottom: Surupa Sen