writers on dancing


Ancienne & Nouvelle Cuisine

"Experience India"
Mallika Sarabhai and the Darpana Dance Company
presented by Dakshina / Daniel Phoenix Singh & Company
Tawes Theater, The University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland, USA
Saturday, October 29, 2005

by George Jackson
copyright ©2005 by George Jackson

So rich a feast is Bharata Natyam, the ancient form of dance from South India, that the wise chef serves it in discreet portions. Impulsive, it can probe space by bounding forward, yielding alternately to earth's demands and skyward aspirations. Controlled, it can convey desire subtly, with fingers that articulate in whispers and glances that beckon and stab. Vulnerable, it opens the body frontally to the beholder. Demanding, its drumming footwork leaves no rhythmic doubts. In trying to describe such a cornucopia of movement there is the temptation to compare it to classical ballet.  

In both forms, the Indian and the Western, the body is turned out, although the un-turned 6th position (both feet forward) occurs with some frequency in Bharata Natyam. Ballet posture is normally stretched, pulled up and out, whereas in Bharata Natyam the standing dancer often seems about to sit down. Both forms indulge in angling the joints, but each has its own predilections for body parts. There's more heel in India's footwork, as there is in character ballet compared to classical, and the purposeful use of foot sounds is more constant than the light tapping, the taquete, that can be so exciting when it signals exceptional impatience in the pointe work of ballet. Much of Bharata Natyam's bounty was in evidence during "Nataraja Vandanam", the 20 minute suite which opened the program. No choreographer was listed, but presumably Mallika Sarabhai was the chef who apportioned serving sizes of the different courses suited to the digestion of an up-to-date audience of Westerners and India expatriates.  

There were declarative portions and contemplative ones, ensembles for all eight dancers and a solo for Sarabhai. She's a skilled performer, not only as a dancer and mime but as a wearer of intriguing costumes. For this suite she was clad in black with gold, severity with luxury, while displaying welcome, wonder, doubt, demands and a spectrum of other semiabstract attitudes as she moved smoothly or rhythmically through her long variation. Sarabhai seemed of medium height compared to the other dancers—three tall men, three short women and a short man with a beard. Projecting in Tawes is no easy matter. This is Washington's most inhospitable theater for dance. Peering at the stage in this gloomy cavern is like looking through the wrong ends of binoculars even when sitting close. Nor is there ever enough light. The Darapana dancers triumphed over the theater's handicaps.

Sarabhai was both emcee and a performer in the program's other half which consisted of seven dance sketches. Two, by Padmakumar Damodaran (the short, bearded man), were based on the martial art form Kalaripayattu, from the Indian state of Karala. Damodaran uses this heritage sensitively to display not just dexterity but also introspection. His "My World" is a male duet, very slow and often on the ground, that explores concepts of self. That it was performed by the choreographer with a tall partner (Akshay Patel) undoubtedly added a tension that needed to be resolved, and was. Damodaran's "Marking the Space" isn't as directly martial, there are no spatial thrusts, no immediate challenges to other bodies. Instead, six dancers configure the stage space, marking their places on the expanse. Yet their close, restricted motion is reminiscent of the fighter's guarded stance.

Sarabhai's contemporary pieces tend to tackle big themes - intolerance, women's rights, deception of others and the self, dance power - but their meanings are more apparent in the accompanying words than in what one sees. The expressionist movement she uses for both "Bird in My Ceiling" and "Kaun" didn't require Indian dance training, although "Kaun" was visually effective in a Halloween way with its ghostly figures, each with 4 masks—two on their heads and two carried on sticks. "I Rise", Sarabhai's emotional recitation of Maya Angelou's poem, had movement commentary that was in part Indian, and "Celebration" was a start to making couple dancing with Indian vocabulary. "Tic Toc", by Mallika Sarabhai and Revanta Sarabhai (one of the tall young men), is a typical mélange of a closer. Hard work is needed if India's dance traditions are to reflect life today as richly as in the past.  

Volume 3, No. 40
October 31, 2005

copyright ©2005 George Jackson



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last updated on October 31, 2005