Indian classical dance
by Leah O'Donnell
From the September, 2017 issue
PanchaChitra opens with the noise of a storm, and sound remains central throughout this dance theater piece. Ankle bells clang softly as a woman stomps her bare, flattened feet to the ground. Her torso is fluid, shaping itself like a temple statue. Arms stretch like snakes, and dancers' fingers and eyebrows comment pointedly on the action.
Dancer and choreographer Sreyashi Dey brought her company, Srishti Dances of India, to Ann Arbor in 1995 to teach, perform, and preserve classical Indian dance that was first performed about 2,000 years ago inside Hindu temples. Eight techniques emerged from eight regions, each with an aesthetic modeled after the statues of gods and goddesses in their temples. Dey is a practitioner of the Odissi style from eastern India.
PanchaChitra's concept is based on Chitrangada, the story of an Indian princess who transforms herself to win the love of a man.
Princess Chitrangada, raised as her father's son so that she may lead his army and protect their village, falls for the archer Arjun. Thinking she is a boy, he rejects her--a rejection that begins a process of self-sacrifice and, ultimately, self-actualization when Chitrangada asks the god of love to make her classically beautiful.
In Dey's version, the traditional plot is reimagined with a contemporary twist and an emphasis on women's strength and equity. Five women dance the five stages of Chitrangada's journey from warrior to siren to truest self, in a society where beauty is currency and gender roles are strict. Arjuna makes no appearance--he is but the trigger that sets off the princess's journey. Recorded narrations by Mala Chakraborty and dancers voice an inner monologue throughout.
Dey and her fellow dancers are both rhythmic and fluid, their ever-evolving formations sometimes freezing into tableaux. The deep plies, heavy heeled-walks, hyper-extended fingers, off-kilter hips, and specificity of facial expressions are unlike traditional American and European dance techniques.
An expert in classical Indian dance can read movement like a manuscript, construing the vocabulary of foot positions and hand gestures, scanning wrist bends and eye shifts for punctuation. But anybody can enjoy the intricacy and ritual of the ages-old art form.
Dey is also the artistic director of the Indian performing arts group Akshara, and PanchaChitra appears as part of the group's Rasa Dance Festival, September 23 and 24 at Riverside Arts Center. The dance festival is part of the larger Rasa Festival of Indian arts, which begins September 1.
[Originally published in September, 2017.]
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