"Vibhakta," "Selected Play,"
"Light Beings," "Gloria"
Nrityagram, 605 Collective, HeadSpaceDance, Dance Theatre of Harlem
New York City Center
September 27, 2013
by Kathleen O’Connell
copyright © 2013 by Kathleen O’Connell
One of the delights of a Fall for Dance performance is the audience. The packed house is alive with an infectious, happy buzz that’s as irresistible as champagne. The point of the festival is variety: it aims to hook everyone on something. And the crowd is open-minded in the best way: ready to take everything offered on its own terms and to have a good time. At the second program of five, they responded as warmly to the barefoot, silk-draped practitioners of Indian classical dance as they did to the ballerinas in chiffon and the contemporary troupe in street clothes and sneakers.
The program opened with "Vibhakta," a duet choreographed in the Odissi style by Surupa Sen, the Artistic Director of the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble. The work is set to a Sanskrit hymn honoring Ardhanarishvara, the half male, half female manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva, who represents the harmonious union of male and female in the divine. Sen has recast the hymn as a love song between the god’s male and female halves, Shiv and Shivah. It was performed by Sen and Bijayini Satpathy, her colleague of twenty years and the director of the company’s school. They were accompanied by an ensemble of four excellent musicians; it was the only live music of the evening.
"Vibhakta" began, as many of Nrityagram’s dances do, with a brief but effective preface designed to prepare the novice eye for a work from an unfamiliar tradition. Sen recited an English translation of the hymn’s text while Satpathy mimed it for us using the postures and gestures we would encounter in the dance that followed. A gentle ripple of the hands showed us the flowers adorning Shivah’s hair; a bolder sweep downwards from broadened shoulders showed us Shiv’s garland of skulls. The little primer was as beguiling as the duet itself.
Odissi dance, with its liquid transitions from one exquisitely sculptural pose to another and its highly stylized turns, jumps, and traveling steps, looks like a temple frieze come to life. Despite the fact that there’s nothing remotely “natural” about it—or perhaps because of that—the style is well-suited to the representation of character and incident. Even though the two women were costumed alike and mirrored each other’s steps, there was little doubt that Satpathy was portraying Shiv and Sen, Shivah. Though some of Satpathy’s gestures were obvious displays of masculinity—at one point she paraded around Sen with the exaggerated steps of a boastful warrior—subtle shifts in emphasis and address allowed her to convey Shiv’s essential maleness while remaining unequivocally feminine herself. It was a neat illustration of the work’s central premise.
Whether poised on the brink of movement like figures in a finely-wrought carving or whirling across the stage in ecstatic turns, Sen and Satpathy danced together with a rare communicative sympathy. Sen’s own program note about the union of Shiv and Shivah captures it best: "Existing in perfect harmony, each acknowledges and celebrates the other."
In one of those serendipitous juxtapositions that Fall for Dance sometimes throws our way, Nrityagram’s luminous vision of divine harmony was immediately followed by 605 Collective’s gray depiction of anonymous human discord. "Selected Play," a remix of two of the Vancouver-based company’s earlier works, served up image after image of conflict and collision couched in a hip-hop infused version of contemporary dance that placed a premium on physicality.
One vignette read like a rumble built out of freeze-frame B-Boy battles. Dressed in nondescript street clothes and sneakers, the troupe’s three men and three women—largely indistinguishable from one another—broke off into tense little knots, sparred, froze, reconfigured, and sparred again. Another scene suggested a particle accelerator. A lone member of the troupe hurtled around a race-track-like oval projected onto the stage from above, smashed into a cluster of dancers gathered on the backstretch, and popped another one free to repeat the cycle.
“Selected Play” borrowed freely from hip-hop’s vocabulary, but not from its ethos. The company executed its moves with a dour scrappiness that evidenced little of the finesse, wit, and cocksure bravado of top-tier B-Boys. And although there were moments of individual display—the whole point of a hip-hop battle—the real focus was the group. Extended passages of unison movement, in addition to the dramatic vignettes, pulled the focus back from the individual to take in the collective image spread across the stage.
Ultimately, the message-laden vignettes in "Selected Play" were too schematic—and too trite—to sustain interest. When one dancer leveled a pointed gaze at another, then made an "I’m outta here" exit, it was a moment. When a second repeated the gesture, it was a reinforcement of the original image. By the time we’d gotten to the fourth iteration, it was nothing but predictable. Also predictable was the accompanying soundscape: some original ambient electronica by Kristen Roos and selections from Tehn, Ghislain Poirier, and Thom Yorke.
The second half of the evening opened with "Light Beings," a harmless Mats Ek trifle to Sibelius that alternated pretty dance clichés with outbursts of goofiness and lasted all of five minutes. Textbook jetés were followed by vigorous hand-waggles in a deep squat or a clown-like, wide-legged skip across the stage. It was ably performed by Christopher Akrill and Charlotte Broom, the Artistic Directors of London-based HeadSpaceDance. But why were they ferried across the Atlantic for five minutes of stage time in a re-worked Mats Ek extract when they’ve got newly-commissioned, purpose-built, and presumably longer pieces in their repertoire?
The program closed with Dance Theatre of Harlem’s performance of "Gloria," a 2012 ballet by the company’s resident choreographer, Robert Garland. Set to the much-loved Poulenc "Gloria," the straightforward, neoclassical work celebrated joyous faith with a light touch. Aside from a few moments of dance hall vernacular, Garland was loyal to ballet’s core vocabulary. He was loyal to its traditional hierarchy, as well. The couple at the center of the work’s story of faith and grace led a clearly defined community: two soloist couples, a corps of eight, and seven young girls from the company’s school.
Pamela Cummings dressed the women in short, floaty chiffon skirts and draped bodices—turquoise blue for the soloists, chartreuse for the corps. She put the men in coordinating unitards, softened with a bit of looseness at the ankles and draping at the neckline. It was a look that paid homage to tradition without being trapped in it: the fullness of the skirts and the formality of the bodices evoked tutus, but not the 19th century.
Garland made a welcome fuss over his ensemble. He gave them lovely steps and patterns, but even more, he made them the critical element in the work’s most vivid stage pictures. Their gestures underscored its themes: instead of hitting the air with lifts or leaps during the first movement’s moment of climax, they stopped dead and slowly opened their arms while raising their faces heavenwards in exaltation. It was unexpected, beautiful to watch, and reminded us that the dance wasn’t about them, it was about their faith.
The work was never dark, though it evoked moments of doubt. In one of its most moving passages, Da’von Doane, the male lead, slowly wound his way through an ever-reconfiguring barrier formed by the corps, a sinner in search of salvation. When female lead Ashley Murphy floated past him in a long series of stage-skimming bourrées, she was like the balm of forgiveness. Later, when the soprano soloist invoked "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world," Murphy’s shimmering fourth position bourrées shed their beneficent grace on a new group of supplicants.
The company’s joy at being onstage again after its long hiatus and their justifiable pride in the gift Garland has given them shone through every moment of their dancing. There could have been no better way to bring the program to a close and send a happy audience out into the night.
copyright © 2013 by Kathleen O’Connell
Top: Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy in "Vibhakta"; photo by Uma Dhanwatey
Middle: 605 Collective; photo by Chris Randle
Bottom: Dance Theatre of Harlem in "Gloria"; photo by Matthew Murphy