Excellence doesn’t sneak up on you; it walks right up and shakes your hand. It took less than a minute after the curtain rose for the audience to know that the performance of the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble was a great one. The rest was simply delightful confirmation.
Nrityagram is not just a dance company, it is an entire dance village set up in India by its founder, Protima Gauri. Its work, teaching and training classical Indian dance, is carried on by her students including the current artistic director and choreographer, Surupa Sen. The dancing is based Odissi temple dance; but Indian sacred dance and music in an authentically Indian setting would be a freeform event taking place over hours, perhaps days. This is the concession to Western audiences; the restraint and focus of the composition. Nrityagram’s current production brilliantly reconceives these dances for Western eyes.
The six dancers, all female, were clothed in bright silks with headdresses that were like halos of blossoms and bells on their waists and ankles. The four male musicians in long, simple saffron-colored shirts and white pants sat on the floor at the side of the stage. The masterly technical coordination and lighting by Lynne Fernandez turned the stage into a black velvet jewel box, with the dancers as precious stones illuminated by single beams. Five dances were performed that, in the words of the company, consist “of a re-conception of a typical Odissi recital, which normally progresses from mangalacharan (an invocation) through pallavi (pure dance) and traditional abhinaya (interpretive verses) to moksh (dance of liberation).”
The invocation was “Namas”, a quartet dedicated to Ganesh, the elephant god. “Murali Paani” was an interpretive solo for Sen that depicted an Oriya ode to Krishna:
Look at him . . .
Classical Indian mime makes about as much sense as classical ballet mime to the uninitiated. The production dealt with that problem intelligently with a short avant-propos where the poem was recited offstage while a dancer went through the mime, creating a short glossary of the moments we would see in the full dance. Like ballet mime, in expert hands the gestures are beautiful even if completely stripped of meaning.
A second interpretative dance, this time a trio, was done in celebration of the god Shiva:
He is Shiva, perfect lover to his consort Parvati.
The faces of the dancers with their huge eyes and searing glances as they showed us the furious countenance of Bhairava were marvelous. Those used to Western dance will recognize the dancers’ driving plié in first or second position; they are grounded. Above that base, the torso floats. The neck and head is placed freely above the spine. The dancers used their gaze as articulately as their hands or feet. They may focus directly on the audience or, similarly to a Western ballerina, throw their gaze deliberately out of focus. Western dancers do this to convey a sense of ethereality, but the when the Nrityagram dancers did it they bring us with them into a state of otherworldliness. They go beyond biological femininity to the essence of a feminine ideal that is endlessly studied by the Japanese onnagata or the Western female impersonator in an attempt to distill its mysteries.
Watching Sen’s choreography is like encountering a chef with a perfect palate or a singer with perfect pitch. The sense of proportion and balance is immaculate. A line of dancers will shift, stamp and swirl in unison and imperceptibly one of them will glide back from the group to pose and watch. Sen has an unerring sense of when to keep dancers in formation and when to vary the picture as if she could anticipate the audience’s desires. Her use of space is similar. The patterns aren’t complex; they’re simply right.
India’s culture and art are those of magnificent excess; it makes the production’s mastery of restrained focus all the more surprising. There’s a balance between focus and trance that takes time to adjust to. I found the pieces too long, but not because they were dull. There was too much information I was unskilled at taking in. It was so easy and interesting to watch, yet my eyes needed a rest. Like the choreography, the dancers also exhibit a beautiful balance between the stillness of their torsos and the ornament of their extremities; the neck and head, the fingers and hands and their drumming feet. The musicians, though a more discreet presence, were no less skilled. The spell they all wove was magical.
The joy of discovering something new and wondrous can’t be repeated. The dancers will return to New York in 2006 and I look forward to seeing the Nrityagram dancers again with less innocent but more discerning eyes. Until then, I can only repeat the same advice that brought me to them. At a performance last year of the Trocks, I struck up conversation with an elegant Indian lady in front of me “raised on Fonteyn and Beriosova.” As she put on her fur to leave, she said "You must see the Nrityagram dancers!" and then swept out. Trust this lady. She’s batting 1.000.