bharatanatyam

Jayanthi Raman’s Indian dance seeks the divine

Beautiful dancing and glimpses of the gods but also some mundane production problems

On Friday night at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, Jayanthi Raman, the director of Jayanthi Raman Dance Company and school, along with her company of five Bharatnatyam dancers, some local and some visiting (Shradha Vinod, Soujanya Madhusudan, Sweta Ravishankar, Mugdha Vichare and Ramya Raman), performed Anubhava, a mixed program of seven dances to a variety of traditional Carnatic music.

The word Anubhava has many meanings but generally refers to the ecstatic experience of the divine. The first half of the concert was an homage to Lord Shiva, the Hindu god known as the destroyer; the second half was devoted to Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and known as the creator or preserver.

Jayanthi Raman Dance Company in Anubhava. Photo by G. Sriram.

Jayanthi Raman Dance Company in Anubhava. Photo by G. Sriram.

Within the costume choices, choreography and hand gestures I could clearly see references to the gods’ identities, physical attributes and their historic stories. Shiva’s four-armed form was represented by a straight line of dancers lined up behind each other undulating their arms, creating the illusion that the first dancer or Shiva, has multiple arms. This is always a popular choice in Bharatanatyam choreography and a fun effect.

In general, the choreography was symmetrical, simple and straightforward, with the rhythms of the dancers feet and bells matching the instrumental rhythms in the music. Many of the dances began and ended with beautiful tableaus of the dancers posing as different characters within the stories. Raman experimented with different groupings of dancers on the stage, coming and going throughout the dance creating different relationships at different times. The dance themes ranged from abstract rhythmic dances to ancient stories from the Vedas.

The dancers, who were of different ages and experiences, were beautiful and talented, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. One dancer in particular, Sweta Ravisankar,  embodied the aesthetic of Bharatanatyam completely, I thought. She was long and lean, her movements were sharp and quick, and she looked as though she enjoyed every minute of every moment on stage and shared this joy with us through her beautiful smile and boundless energy.

In the second half Raman performed a solo to a song called Thottu thottu pesum with lyrics by poet Periyasaamy Thooran. She spoke to us onstage before she performed, explaining that she had only heard the music once and was going to improvise the dance based on the three different types of love for Lord Krishna as described in ancient Indian dance literature: Vatsalyam or maternal love; Sringaram, romantic love; and Bhakti, devotion. As far as I know, improvising while performing in the Indian dance context is rare if nonexistent.

My issue with this particular improvisation was that it wasn’t an improvisation. The dance itself consisted mostly of pantomime that looked familiar to me as I have seen these stories performed many times before. The movement is pretty much set repertoire for any Bharatanatyam dancer. If you already know the dance, how does it all of a sudden become improvisation when all you’re doing is changing the music?

The beautiful dancing in the concert was undermined by many presentation and production problems, unfortunately. The concert opened with a recording of Raman reciting her biography and achievements while we viewed an accompanying slide show that went on far too long, it was later repeated in a shorter version during the last dance, an homage to Mahatma Gandhi on his birthday. Normally this information is printed in a program (there was no program) and felt inappropriately placed within the context of the performance.

The projections of photos of the different gods behind each dance included helpful translations of the songs, but perhaps those could have been printed in the program, and the constantly changing background was distracting. Many times the dancers forgot choreography or were out of sync with each other, and the curtains, lighting and projections did things they weren’t supposed to do.

This company has many of the ingredients of what a professional Bharatanatyam company should look like and that made these shortcomings stand out more than they might have otherwise.

 

Dance: A midsummer night in southern India

Temple dance meets Shakespeare. Good match!

A flight through the forest, bharatanatyam-style. Photo: Anjali School of Dance

More than 1.2 billion people, or roughly one of every six in the world, live in India. I mention this because, even though I consider myself relatively well-acquainted with the traditions of the dance world, I know next to nothing about bharatanatyam or any of the other classic dance forms of the world’s second-most-populous nation. My ignorance is far from unusual in the West, even among dance devotees: when we speak blithely about the dance “world,” there are worlds we know little or nothing about.

So it’s something of a blessing for Portland that Anita Menon’s Anjali School of Dance has been around since 1996, training students in the classical traditions, helping to keep Indian culture alive for the metropolitan area’s small but thriving ethnic Indian community (many concentrated in the high-tech corridor of the western suburbs; the Anjali school is in Hillsboro), and bringing at least a taste of Indian dance to mainstream audiences.

Menon has long been interested in bridging Eastern and Western traditions in her dances – after all, her Indian audience is also American, and her Western audience can use a familiar peg to hang its hat on as it enters unfamiliar territory – and so she’s grafted any number of Western tales and legends to her story-dances, from “Red Riding Hood” to “Pegasus.” Last weekend, in a pair of performances in downtown Portland’s Newmark Theatre, she presented what might have been her most ambitious such project, a fusion of bharatanatyam technique with the story of Shakespeare’s grand comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The dance world (there we go again) sometimes gets into arguments about “authenticity” in what it calls “ethnic” dance – an odd rubric, given that one way or another, everyone’s ethnic. But the truth is, especially in the cultural polyglot of the United States, authenticity is a great and vibrant scramble. Here, we mix things up.

Anjali’s “Midsummer Night” is gorgeous to look at, from its rich temple-inspired costumes to the architectural snap of its precise group formations, which suggest a singularity of movement and purpose that a Radio City Rockette would understand. This is spectacle, in a good sense, a work that saturates the eyes and pleases the senses. It’s in constant motion, shape-shifting to a mix tape that’s authentic to the spirit of the American stewpot: it tosses in a little bit of everything from classical Indian music to Beethoven’s Fifth, Bollywood songs, and hip-hop. In that sense it reflects the shifting multiplicities of everyday life in Indian American communities. And unlike compressed ballet versions set to Mendelssohn’s brilliant score, Anjali’s “Midsummer” is leisurely and expansive, playing out most of the comedy’s major themes and using a narrator (actor G. Scott Brown, as Shakespeare himself) to set up the action and summarize the scenes.

Oberon (Poorna Sridhar) and Puck (Alisha Menon). Photo: Mahendra Ramachandran

In Menon’s version Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen, play the central roles, and they’re performed with fine mimetic skill by Poorna Sridhar (Oberon) and Shaila Ramachandran (Titania). Because I don’t know the vocabulary of what is obviously a highly codified and ritualized dance form, it’s difficult for me to describe their performances: there are, for instance (I learn with a little research), 108 karanas, or key transitional movements, that dancers must master, and dozens of hastas, those elegant hand movements that are such an expressive and sometimes even startling part of Indian dance; strictly codified movements of the head, neck and eyes also play significant roles. Do I know how well these skills have been mastered? I do not. But I do know the rough shape of skill when I see it: Sridhar and Ramachandran dance with a good deal of precision, using their hands and elbows to sharply chiseled effect. Their feet can move in bursts of astonishing speed, and, as all good performers do, they transcend technique to convey personality and joy. As in mime, acting is a good part of their performance, from body movement to facial expression (at times I felt almost as if I were watching a silent movie in live action), and both displayed deft comic skills: I could imagine them cast in a good French farce.

The dance we see has been inevitably altered from its original form. Bharatanatyam is a revived and recodified 19th and 20th century version of Cathir, the temple dances of Southern Indian tradition, which in turn were rooted in ancient dance forms. Its distinctive look is derived from sculptures at Thillai Natarajah Temple, a Hindu temple devoted to Shiva, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. (I learn all of this through the magic of the Internet, and specifically from that font of immediate information, Wikipedia.)

A combined word that includes expression, rhythm, beat or music, and dance, bharatanatyam is considered a fire dance, manifesting “the metaphysical element of fire in the human body.” Anjali’s performance also incorporates snippets of kathak (sky) and kuchipudi (earth), as well as some folk-dance forms. Taken out of its original contexts and away from its traditional audiences, the dance obviously shifts in both form and meaning. Menon suggests as much in her program notes: “Since this ancient dance originated in the temples of South India, almost all the dances are in praise of the Gods of the Hindu religion. While I have been diligent about passing on this dance in its original form to my students, I’ve also been very passionate about adapting it to tell stories, myths, and legends from around the world.”

That passion translates well to the performance. Among the other core performers are Alisha Menon as Puck, Tara Sengupta as Bottom, Kamya Chandra as Hermia, Meera Nair as Helena, Abinaya Srikanthan as Lysander, Varsha Kalavar as Demetrius, Srividhya Chandrasekaran and Lavanya Karunakaran as Duke Theseus and Hippolyta (whose impending nuptials kick the whole tale into action), and the charming young Sanya Surya as the Changeling Boy who prompts Titania and Oberon’s jealous spat.

Most of the dancers in this very large cast are young – the production is, after all, a showcase for the Anjali school – but I found that not at all troublesome or limiting. It was obvious that the students were well-prepared, and also that they were enjoying themselves: the show might have seemed overly long, but it was ebullient. It struck me that this form of dance is a little like flamenco: it’s a genuinely community form in which there’s room for people of all ages and skill levels. Those chorus lines of young fairy dancers had their place. So did Sridhar and Ramachandran, as Oberon and Titania, with their more complex skill sets.

And for audiences – and writers – used to seeing dance through Western eyes, a whole subcontinent waits to be discovered.

Temple dance meets Beethoven’s Fifth. Photo: Mahendra Ramachandran

 

 
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