Gold, yet Standard
Nrityagram Dance Ensemble
“Sankirtanam,” “Panchtaal Pallavi,” “Lalita Lavanga,”“Aali,”“Sridevi”
Gerald W. Lynch Theater
New York, NY
November 4, 2016
The Movement is the Message
Liz Gerring Dance Company
“(T)here to (T)here”
Baryshnikov Arts Center
New York, NY
November 11, 2016
by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2016 by Leigh Witchel
Nrityagram opened its program for the White Light Festival with a BAM! as four musicians seated at stage right slammed into a per-cussive score. Nrityagram, based in southern India, returned to New York bringing a group of six dancers – the last few appearances had only been of the two pillars of the company, Bijayini Satpathy and director and choreographer Surupa Sen.
Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy of Nrityagram Dance Ensemble Photo © Shalini Jain.
Odissi, appropriately for a festival concentrating on spirituality, depicts and celebrates the lore of the gods in battle or in triumph. Nrityagram is dedicated to the traditions of Odissi dance, and the concert followed a traditional form, beginning and ending with an invocation. In “Sankirtanam” (a prayer), Satpathy rotated across the stage before the full cast stood in a striking diagonal, and then set looser groups weaving across the stage like colored marbles.
The one purely abstract work was “Panchtaal Pallavi”; originally a solo created by Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra and restaged for the group by Sen. Sen’s skill at ensemble work is what makes her stand out from other Indian dance makers. Her groups are elegantly mathematical, setting two against three, or four against one. In “Panchtaal Pallavi” the dancers entered one by one, became a group and separated at the end, moving in and out from the sides.
Odissi, at least as done by Nrityagram, treats nritta – pure dance sections – differently than bharatanatyam might. That style sets off fireworks in the interaction between the dancer and the bols – the rapid patter of the nattuvanar – the concertmaster. Here, the interaction was less showy and the musicians came to the fore in the striking repeated cry of the nattuvanar in “Panchtaal Pallavi.” It had Western cognates; a pallavi is a repeated theme: an analogue to a passacaglia.
A premiere, “Lalita Lavanga,” looped back to the duet work Sen and Satpathy have been doing. Taking its source from the “Gita Govinda” the 12th century Indian poem that is the touchstone for so many Indian dance narratives, Sen came out onstage for the first time and with Satpathy, brought to life a poem the one about the spring fecundity of the forest.
Sen also performed “Aali,” a solo new to North America, done to the 16th century poem of Meera, with long mime sections were the poet compares herself to Radha, the quintessential devotee and lover of Krishna from the “Gita Govinda.”
Nrityagram is the gold standard for Odissi dance, but the group’s professional gloss can take on a hard finish. The concert felt expertly staged: in the final piece, “Sridevi,” the praise of the mother goddess began with a lone dancer still as a statue in a haze of red smoke. Another circled her with a small lamp of pinpoint candles before she came to life. And one of the best mime and dance moments of the evening came when Satpathy as she enacted a goddess’ fury, jamming into a wide plié with her eyes massive and piercing as the bols sped up, and became almost a shout.
It was brilliant, but also familiar. It’s splitting hairs to ask artists at the top of their form to outdo themselves, but in order for Nrityagram to surprise their repeat viewers, that may be what they have to do.
Liz Gerring’s “(T)here to (T)here” was a long, packed dance: if Merce Cunningham ran the New York Marathon it might look like this. The work began its development as a solo and you could see that in how it was mapped out: two dancers began an extended duet, another dancer joined, then another, and as new dancers arrived the ones who had been onstage longest left, giving the effect of a panorama even without any lateral motion.
Visual artist Kay Rosen collaborated with Gerring to create a slowly morphing projection of wordplay and shapes with a similar journeying effect. The score by Michael Schumacher was discreet noise, sounding at first like echoing rattle of a cistern.
While a contemporary choreographer, Gerring’s work was as laden with vocabulary and abstract movement as that of any ballet choreographer. Everything she said, she said with steps. Brandon Collwes, his hair dyed a similar blue to his tights, rocketed onstage broad jetés, covering all of the small, square stage. Claire Westby joined him. Their movement was aerobic, like exercise oscillating between outbursts and cool-down. She walked towards him and he caught her hand to begin a duet; they careened and rolled into a twisty phrase that dipped and bounced.
Joseph Giordano entered jumping with his legs tucked under him and his arms circling overhead. The arrival of a new dancer didn’t much affect those already on stage. Occasionally they traded phrases but most often they were separate molecules that did not collide. He left, but returned from the other side. Collwes and Westby’s partnering wnt on to explore torsion and balances; she pulled away and he braced her. As Collwes picked Westby up, Giordano tumbled backwards across the stage. The couple scrambled on the floor before leaving separately.
A fourth woman (Julia Jurgilewicz), a man (Pierre Guilbault) and finally Gerring herself made appearances as the dance continued. Rosen’s projections divided into three triangles that morphed into the words “three angels,” and blue circles like halos. Jurgilewicz and Guilbault danced together, walking in circles and slicing their arms as the score sounded like objects rolling down stairs.
If the action never stopped, it did seem to back up and circle round itself to conclude. Collwes and Westby returned and the work closed with them backing offstage in arabesques and torso tilts.
Gerring shares a tenacity with artists such as Sarah Michelson or Heather Kravis, but she’s more abstract in her intentions and purer in her utterances. She’s also more terse and well-edited; she made 40 minutes go by quickly. But the uncompromising purity of “(T)here to (T)here” may be the piece’s weakness. The steps have to be that much more compelling to keep you satisfied without anything else.
copyright © 2016 by Leigh Witchel
Bottom: Brandon Collwes in “(T)here to (T)here.” Photo © Miguel Anaya.