World dance, ethnic dance, classical dance — such cookie-cutter categories are often thrown around without careful thought. Isn't ballet an ethnic art form? Can't much of what we call "world dance" also be considered modern dance? In the case of Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, the renowned Indian classical-contemporary dance company, the genres blend provocatively.
Based near Bangalore in an artists' commune, Nrityagram is an all-female ensemble devoted to preserving and expanding classical Indian dance forms, especially Odissi. Dancers train intensively and also study literature, mythology, Sanskrit, music, meditation, martial arts, and yoga in what sounds like creative nirvana. According to the philosophy of its visionary founder, Protima Gauri, "being a good dancer is second only to being a good human being."
On Wednesday, April 19, at the Power Center, Nrityagram presents Sacred Space, a full-evening production whose title refers to the glorious Hindu temples of Orissa in eastern India, where Odissi dance originated. Only in the last century have many of these temple rituals dedicated to the gods been transformed into concert dance. The proscenium stage is now the temple and the audience, along with the dancers, the devotees. And as traditional Odissi dance weds the earthly and the divine, Nrityagram artistic director Surupa Sen merges ancient and modern choreography, mindfully, without sacrificing the spirit and integrity of the dance.
If updating the classics with outside influences sounds sacrilegious, have a look at a lively double interview in the New York Times last April with American modern dance guru Mark Morris (whose company opened this UMS season) and Surupa Sen, in which Morris opined, "First of all, nothing is pure or ever has been. It's like when you're a kid and you first realize that when you cross the state border there isn't a line, and it doesn't change colors like it does on the map. All languages, all cultures — it's not multiculturalism, it's culture."
Odissi dance is notable for its tribhangi stance, three body bends that create an S curve. Combining it with isolated torso movements and codified hand and facial expressions, the exquisite dancers of Nrityagram bring temple sculpture to life. When I saw Nrityagram in 2003, I was struck by the performers' high-relief gestures and sinuous poise as they scooted on percussive feet. They animate space to extraordinary effect. (Kids will love the one-hour family performance on April 18.) Set to live music, often commissioned by the group, the arts align in Nrityagram's exalted sanctuary: sculpture, poetry (verse is attached to every movement), and the dance.
[Review published April 2006]