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stg: nrityagram dance ensemble—a review

at Seattle Theatre Group

April 17

Bijayini Satpathy (photo by Sonia Manchanda)

By Teresa Beery

Bijayini Satpathy (Nan Melville photo)

The house lights fade and through the darkness we hear a voice, sweet and clear, telling the story of Odissi dance and reciting the poetic inspiration of the first dance. A distant jingling of bells begins. The stage lights rise on four Indian women spaced in a half circle in the center of the stage: their costume of rich fabric in colors of orange, red and gold; ornate and sparkling jewelry adorn their arms, neck, and waist; bells jingle at ankles and waist; their hair pulled back from the face into a bun encircled by an ornate headdress; their hands and soles of their feet painted in designs of red; the bindi on their forehead black, encircled by a pattern in white; their eyes and faces bright and expressive. The women hold formal poses with hands and feet just so. Slowly they circle, change level from low to high, bourrée on their heels. Their hands are expressive and tell a story of prayer, fire, and far off places. We are transported to a sensuous and mysterious place.

A crowd favorite was Vibhakta (the division). As stated in the program, “In the union and the separation of the male and female principle lies the secret of all creation.” This piece was danced enchantingly by Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy, the Artistic Director of Nrityagram Dance and Director of Odissi gurukul respectively. These women have fine tuned their bodies to the particular style of Odissi dance. The dance begins with a high spotlight backlighting a shape that appears as one being with four arms. They glide across the stage in deep plié, bells ringing at their ankles, to stop in a complimentary pose. The two dancers blend and merge as one, then as two, coming together and apart. They perform high kicks and tricks. They celebrate and present one another. The dance slows to pantomime and the women enchant us with sly looks, amazingly expressive faces and hands that tell stories. Now in unison, now mirroring one another, the fast feet pick up in complicated patterns, punctuated by the jingling of ankle bells and the slap of bare feet on the floor. The two women merge, turn as one, and glide off the stage, feet pulsing to the beat. The crowd roars, touched by the beauty, amazed by the skill, enchanted by the style.

Odissi is a form of dance that is 2,000 years old. Captured from carvings in the walls and statues of the temple Orissa, it represents the many sacred rituals danced in the temple for the gods. In a discussion session after the performance, Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy explained that it has only been revived in the past 60 years and there are thousands of statues and shapes yet to be explored. The gurus teach the set vocabulary of the dance form, but then the choreographer uses that vocabulary to create their own stories. An ancient art form becomes contemporary, addressing the interests of the current generation and influenced by past generations.

The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble is unique in that they live and work in the Nrityagram village, where dance is a way of life, where strict training in many forms punctuates their days, where dancers, musicians, and choreographers live together, and artists from many different disciplines are invited to come and collaborate in the artistic process. This complete immersion in the arts has created a troupe of amazingly accomplished and enchanting performers for the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble.

In the last piece, Aarati (offering of lights), four dancers enter holding two small lights each. They travel toward the audience and place the lights on the floor, an offering. The stage if flooded with green light as if the dancers are moving on a sea of green; the chanting rhythms of the music back the dancers motions. Now they are strong, holding arms high at sharp angles, in unison they chug toward each other in deep second plié. Their movement is grounded with weight on the heels of their feet. With repetitions and unison movement, the power of the women is manifest. Difficult promenade attitude turns, then a group turn where the dancers are stacked like dominoes are powerful moments. Three women pull the third as if on magic ropes to the front and present her, radiant, the presiding deity. All gather their lights, the stage dims, and we are presented with the dance of lights. The movement becomes less stylized and free; the lights are the stars with the dancers as their vehicle.

Closing with stylized bows and dancer introductions, the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble received a standing ovation. Their performance will linger in our memories.