The day after NSB is usually a day to sleep in, but this afternoon two other hardy Dholrhythmers (plus one Dholrhythms alumna) and me dragged ourselves out of bed for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival‘s showcase of the eight classical dances of India.
Classical Indian dance pieces are generally based on stories and legends from Indian mythology, often telling those stories through the dance. For viewers who aren’t intimately familiar with these tales (like me), such a dance performance can be challenging to watch. And yet for two hours, I sat spellbound. And that’s in spite of the fact that I didn’t read the descriptions of the pieces thoughtfully provided in the program (some of the other, more conscientious Dholrhythmers did). My fascination is a testament both to the universal beauty of dance, and to the talent and showmanship of the dance companies and soloists featured.
The Bay Area is blessed to be a center of Indian classical dance, but for this showcase, the Festival also brought in artists from outside the area to perform those dance forms that aren’t taught here in the Bay Area (Mohiniattam, Manipuri, and Sattriya). I’d never seen those forms before; it was enlightening to compare them to the classical dance forms that I’m more familiar with.
Every single piece was amazing, so I’ll only highlight the ones that especially stood out for me.
Sunanda Nair: Kathakali
The very first set of the very first SF Ethnic Dance Festival was Kathakali. K.P. Kunhiraman (who with his wife Katherine receives this year’s Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement award) was slated to bring back one of the pieces that he performed at that first festival. Sadly, he passed away a few days before this performance. But Houston-area based Sunanda Nair presented Poothana Moksham, based on the story of the demon Poothana, who has been ordered to kill all the boys under a year old in the village of Ambady, where Krishna is a baby. She does this by disguising herself as a young woman, and then poisoning the babies as she nurses them. But when she finally finds baby Krishna….
This was an intense piece — especially since I hadn’t read the description beforehand. It reminded me of Noh Theater: in particular the facial expressions and makeup were suggestive of Noh masks. The movements and gestures were quite theatrical, too. Plus, the story of a divine baby that suckles his demonic nursemaid to death — brrrrrr.
Ms. Nair also performed a lovely Mohiniattam piece, Kubja, about a hunchbacked maidservant who prays to Krisha to rescue her from her miserable life. Like the Kathakali, the Mohiniattam was rich in dramatic, emotion-laden facial expression. These were probably the two most emotive performances of the afternoon, in that sense.
Guru Shradha, Sujata Mohapatra: Odissi
Odissi is my favorite Indian classical dance, not only for its graceful delicacy, but because it’s often more abstract than the other classical dance forms (that is, less strongly tied to a narrative line), and so more accessible. Maya Lochana Devalcheruvu and Akhil Srinivasan Joondeph, ages eleven and ten respectively, performed a lovely duet for Guru Shradha Dance Company. They’ve both been dancing since the age of four, and the performance was simply stunning.
Guru Shrada was founded by Maya’s mother, Niharika Mohanty, a student of the late Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. His daughter Sujata Mohapatra also gave a solo performance. Varsha — The Rains is a joyful piece celebrating both the destructive and life-giving aspects of the monsoons, filled with movements that suggest the dance of animals: snakes, peacocks, deer. You could almost see the light emanating from Ms. Mohapatra as she danced. Both performances just made me happy.
Bhavajan Kumar: Bharatanatayam
There were several Bharatanatayam performances in the show, including one by Katherine Kunhiraman and company, all beautiful. Bhavajan Kumar was a standout for me. Mr. Kumar was the only male of all the Bharatanatayam dancers present; it was interesting to see the difference between the male and female approaches to the dance. His strength and grace were breathtaking. The piece was Chandramoule, a homage to one of the manifestations of Shiva, and quite an athletic choreography, full of elegant, precise, difficult poses.
Wow. Just wow. Oh, and the dance was incredible, too.
Sattriya Dance Company: Sattriya
Sattriya is the name of the Philadelphia-based dance company, and of the dance. This was the other contender for my favorite piece. It was my first introduction to Sattriya (which is not taught here in the Bay Area), and I was immediately taken by the elegance of the hand gestures. Oh, they moved around the stage, too, and at least the second of their two pieces told a story (of Ram and Hanuman), but it was the intricate gestures of their hands, and especially their fingers, that made this dance form (still practiced by monks on the island of Majuli) stand out for me.
Sohini Ray: Manipuri
This was also my first introduction to Manipuri, and I loved the second piece by Los Angeles-based Sohini Ray (well, both pieces, but especially this one). The drum dance Pung Cholom (“Movement with Drums”) is part of a Meitei ritual dance that combines Hindu traditions with aspects of the pre-Hindu belief system of the Meitei people of Manipur. The drum dance is performed exclusively by men in ritual performance.
Dr. Ray’s simple white dhoti, plain shirt, and low-key makeup were quite a contrast from all the other performances. To me, the piece felt as if she had taken the intricate, rhythmic footwork of another dance, like Kathak or Bharatanatayam, and transferred it to the slender two-headed drum that she carried. And doing this while retaining the graceful body movements and spins. It was a much simpler piece than the other performances, one that (to me) felt more folkloric than classical, but I really liked it.
Looking over what stood out for me in this program, I notice that I’ve focused on soloists and pairs. Part of the reason for this might be where I was sitting (very close to the stage). The group choreographies — which included one by the Chitresh Das Dance Company — were also beautiful and impressive, but probably better appreciated from a greater distance.
Overall, it was an utterly engrossing afternoon. I came away with a greater appreciation for classical Indian dance, and a new energy for my own dancing.
Definitely worth crawling out of bed for.
Top image: Natyalaya Dance Company performing Kuchipudi at the 2011 Ethnic Dance Festival. They were also featured in the Eight Classical Dances program. Photo: World Arts West