Nrityagram Dance Ensemble
Barnes Hall, Cornell University
February 4, 2015
Under most circumstances, calling a performance “magical” is like calling a sunset “picture perfect.” It reveals more about the limitations of the admirer than the uniqueness of what is being admired. That said, when Nrityagram presented Songs of Love and Longing to a packed yet intimate crowd at Barnes Hall on Wednesday night, the magic was undeniable.
Over an 85-minute traversal without intermission, the performance spotlighted the bodies, minds and spirits of dancers Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy, both of whom are part of an intentional community (Nrityagram means “dance village”) in southwestern India, where they have dedicated their lives to expanding traditional Odissi dance forms through a gestural vocabulary that is very much their own. Along with a dedicated quartet of musicians playing harmonium, mardala (an oblong drum struck at both ends), violin and bamboo flute, they have lived and breathed their art before a variety of audiences around the globe. In this regard, just being in their presence was a wondrous experience, one that surely turned to whips of electricity for anyone fortunate enough to be held in a dancer’s gaze as she painted scenes with every calculated movement.
Interspersed with narration and threaded by singing, the program drew inspiration from the Gita Govinda, a Sanskrit poem written by the 12th-century mystic Jayadeva, and which describes the holy union between Krishna and Radha. Jayadeva defines their relationship not as one of divine lord and mistress, but rather as one of eternal reflection. The dancers’ ability to morph from one role to another (each switched between Krishna and Radha throughout) only served to emphasize their oneness. As Ms. Sen, who narrated verses offstage, said of Radha, “She revels in infinite spaces.” And indeed, one got the sense that Ms. Satpathy’s Radha permeated everything in the room. Whether plucking flowers from their stems or recounting Krishna’s slaying of the horse-demon Keshi, tracing a river’s flow or illustrating her lover’s redemptive touch, she showed exactitude in her comportment. Radha had all of creation in her grasp as fingers curled and splayed in sync with the live accompaniment. And that was when the first blush of magic came about, for as she shot out a hand into the air, a bat seemed to fly from her open palm. (In fact, the bat had been trapped in the hall and was startled by the mardala drum’s riveting entrance.)
As the story of Krishna and Radha ratcheted the tension, so too did the dancers when sharing the stage for the first time. At any given moment, I was aware of their bodily centers, from which extended invisible cords that tied them in moments of unison. These were among the most memorable aspects of the performance and made the playfulness of their courtship all the more thrilling. It also clarified the subtleties required to evoke the yin and yang of their gender play. Together, they were the hub of a divine wheel, each spoke of which told a variation of an interlocking story. This only served to underscore Krishna as a willing and able prisoner of Radha’s consuming love. The effect was such that, even when Krishna left his lover alone in pursuit of another, her power grew that much greater as she gathered resolve from the forest. When Krishna returned to her at last, he was a peacock spreading his tail feathers in a desperate bid for her attention.
Despite the obvious effort gone into its artistry, the sophistication and elasticity with which Nrityagram evoked these images was extraordinarily organic. Whether in its gallery of glances—at one moment burning with desire, the next cold with menace—or the ankle bells that became a part of its constant texture, the dance was a world unto itself, its spell so potent that every break for applause bordered on intrusive. We were no longer winter-weary travelers on Earth but participants in dialogue above it. As one moment became many, and those many more, Nrityagram proved that real magic takes root in the sacredness of human experience.
(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun.)