I’ve written about dance on this blog before, but I was recently asked to review a couple of dance performances for the New Indian Express. A copy of the edited version of the article is here. My unedited version is included below. Weirdly, even though I really enjoy writing about dance, I’m not sure I want to review much more, primarily because I don’t want to be mean to anyone in a public forum, especially not after they’ve just made themselves vulnerable in front of an audience for an hour and a half. (even if I do secretly think that some of them should not be on a stage at all…) Luckily, all four dancers I reviewed last weekend were very strong, and if I had a problem, it was with the setup of the entire show. It didn’t give the dancers enough freedom to just dance! My review below…
“Natyarangam’s dance festival runs from August 12th through the 17th in the Narada Gana Sabha’s main hall, with two performers each night. This year, the organization has organized the programs to make a point about storytelling. Each dancer is supposed to depict both a contemporary Tamil short story, and a story from the Puranas that shares its theme, the point being that the differences between “contemporary” and “traditional” are arbitrary – that everything new is found in the old too.
I am not sure if I agree with them, nor do I think that the stories they selected for their festival actually bear out this hypothesis. Judging from the crowds that came to the show though, the audience clearly likes this setup. But does it make for good dance?
On the first night of the festival, two immensely talented couples performed, the Bangalore based Anuradha and Shridhar, and the young couple Parvathy and Shijith Nambiar. Anuradha and Shridhar gave a spirited performance, so vivid that even a child could follow the twists and turns in their stories. The couple’s strength as actors is such that at times the bits of dancing seemed irrelevant to their story telling. Shijith and Parvathy had a more sedate, less theatrical production. Their piece was marked by a series of gorgeous tableaux vivants, where the two dancers, posed just so or exited slowly, framed artfully by the lighting at crucial points in the story.
Telling two stories in an hour was a lot to ask from the dancers, and the glimpses of footwork in the show left me wishing that the dancers had more time to spend just dancing for us, instead of rushing through the plot points. Anuradha danced briefly on her own, and I wanted more time to appreciate the strong, straight lines of her arms. Shijith and Parvathy’s assured duet at the end of their piece left me similarly hungry for more.
On the second night of the festival, the luminous dancer Bragha Bessell performed two stories about women punished for men’s lust, one contemporary and one from the Ramayana. Her depth as an actress shone through both. She opened with her back to the audience, partially obscured by a white shawl, and even so, was able to convey the intense pathos of the young woman who had given birth out of wedlock. The scene of Indira watching lustfully as Ahalya blithely went about her chores was vivid, with Bessell masterfully switching between the two characters. Bessell’s eye for details is as precise as any novelist, and watching her characters wash their feet on entering a home or cool a cup of milk before they drink it is a pleasure, and allows the audience to fully enter the world of her characters.
A. Lakshman, who followed Bessell, is a spark on the stage – sprightly and bright in his movements. The Tamil story by Ashokamitran that he was asked to depict was a comic one about a recalcitrant cow, and would have presented a real challenge to any Bharatanatyam dancer. But Lakshman and his orchestra were game – with perfectly timed sound effects, faux Gujarati accents, and even a pratfall, they managed to bring the comic spirit of the story alive onto the stage.
Some of the most exquisite pleasures of a Bharatanatyam performance involve watching a dancer delve deeper and deeper into a character, riffing off of the lyrics of the song to show the inner workings of a character’s mind. Unfortunately, the structure imposed by Natyarangam on the dancers – asking them to depict two complex stories in an hour – may have forced them to sacrifice some of this character development in order to just get through the stories.”