Dance is like music; live performance is the only way to truly experience it. San Francisco’s Ethnic Dance Festival just featured all eight forms of Indian classical dance, live, within one show. While you can always find great bharatanatyam or kathak in the Bay Area without trying too hard, it’s rare to find amazing Odissi or be introduced to sattriya for the first time on the same stage. What we watched today was a world away from what we do with folk dance. The tradition, the training, and the precision of classical dance is quite different from the exuberance of bhangra. But there’s always room for fertile exploration within traditional differences. I was struck by the centrality of storytelling to all of the dance forms today. The purpose of each dance is to express a narrative, often classical or religious, and the narrative drives the structure and flow of each piece. Movements of all body parts combine to reflect deeply symbolic elements of a story.
I was also struck by the concept of grace. Physical virtuosity was certainly in evidence (check out Bhavajan Kumar if you haven’t already), but the most sublime dancing was done by those who made it not just look, but feel effortless. Sattriya pulls the focus to the dancers’ hands, becoming their primary narrative element. Body positioning supports the tale woven by the hands. So simple, yet so graceful and effective. Within classical dance there’s much more attention to line, to the way a body moves through the space around it, and the way space itself interacts with the dancers and the dance. Beauty, and the definition of the beautiful, is the common currency amongst these forms. Occasionally the definition of beauty is stretched, and in one case today almost reversed, but grace remains an inherent component of dance and beauty. It’s a given that these dancers are strong, with an enormous amount of endurance. But the refinement of that power into the container of dance was a truly amazing thing to watch.