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Rajika Puri
Performance Reviews
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NRITYAGRAM ENSEMBLE at Central Park's Summer Stage.

by Rajika Puri
July 9, 2003
New York, NY

NRITYAGRAM ENSEMBLE at Central Park's Summer Stage

by Rajika Puri
July 9, 2003

In town after their successful appearance at the American Dance Festival 2003 in Durham, North Carolina, the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble gave a breathtaking performance of the Indian temple dance form, Odissi, in Central Park on July 9th. Sharing the evening with Molissa Fenley and Dancers, they presented three group dances: two which have been re-staged by artistic director, Surupa Sen, from original choreography by the great Odissi maestro, Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra, and one choreographed by Ms Sen herself.

SummerStage concerts are known for their informality, particularly since the majority of them are popular music presentations. Beer, wine, hamburgers and hot dogs are served, the thought of which must be daunting to a group of young women who live in an idyllic dance village just outside Bangalore in south India, cultivating their own vegetables, and eschewing meat and alcohol for the most part of their lives.

But they needn't have worried. The moment the first dancer appeared to make her obeisance and offer flowers to the ruling deity of the temple with which this dance form is associated, Lord Jagannath, a hush descended on the audience. Cell phones were silenced, children sat up, and the audience barely breathed. We could sense that an important ritual was going to be re-enacted, and that we were going to be in the presence of some powerful Indian gods.

Sridevi is dedicated to 'goddess', the all-powerful mother who has both benign and terrifying forms.

As Lakshmi, she is goddess of wealth, abundance, and all that is auspicious - and feminine. As Mahishasur-mardini, she is destroyer of evil, riding on a tiger with different weapons in each of her many hands. Ms Sen's choreography, complementing the beautiful music composed by Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi (widower of the late stellar dancer, Sanjukta Panigrahi), captured a whole range of images of this deity, as also of her devotees - and her demon victims.

In Arabhi Pallavi, Ayona Bhaduri, Priyambada Pattanaik and Pavitra Reddy, brought alive the famous sculptures of Orissa, in a hall-mark composition of Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra, which has been re-staged by Ms Sen. Undulating sinuously, or holding a langorous moment, the three moved from tribhanga, (pose in which the body forms an 's') to tribhanga as they beat complex rhythms on the floor with their feet and ankle bells.

The evening ended with Shiv Tandav Moksh in which Ms Satpathy, in the company of Ms Reddy and Ms Pattanaik, showed us the cosmic play of the Indian Lord of dance, Shiva - Nataraja, whose rhythms engender the endless cycle of creation and dissolution. Normally Moksh , which means 'spiritual liberation', is simply composed of rhythmic dance. In this version the abstract moment section is preceded by Sanskrit verses chanted in praise of Shiva in his virile tandava form.

Ms Satpathy, an inspired dancer whose very exuberance makes one's own heart leap, captured especially well the power of this magnificent deity - as much with her open, rounded, eyes, as with her fluid body. Whereas in Sridevi we had seen the very embodiment of shakti - female energy - here one saw that energy absorbed once more into a masculine form. The distinction is subtle, but one sees it in painting and sculpture throughout India. Shiva is lithe and elegant; devi is alternatively voluptuous, and simply terrifying - much more bloodthirsty than her male counterpart!

Yet for all the perhaps esoteric nature of the content of their dances, Nrityagram performances are very accessible. Even if one misses the subtlety of the choreography, and does not understand the Sanskrit verses that accompany a large part of the program, she or he cannot but be captivated by the kinetic messages that the dancers so perfectly convey. The audience at the SummerStage - many of whom were young dancers themselves - not only gave them a standing ovation, but were very vocal in their appreciation.

And rightly so. This group is one of the few dance companies from India which tours internationally, including the United States, performing at the most prestigious of venues. At the American Dance Festival, they were in the company of Pilobolus, Twyla Tharpe, Paul Taylor, the French Maguy Marin, and the acclaimed Cloudgate Dance Theatre of Taiwan among others. Their technique is impeccable, their choreography challenging, and their music well-composed. On top of which their lighting designer (and manager) Lynne Fernandez makes them emerge, like celestial maidens, voluptuously three-dimensional and coming out of a cosmic black nothingness.

Truly a company not to be missed whenever or wherever they perform.

Rajika Puri, is a Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancer, who has lately begun to 're-sculpt' Odissi, exploring new ways to restage it for several dancers. She has also developed a form of danced story-telling, most recently seen in her role as 'Narrator' for the New York Ramayana.

Nrityagram Ensemble in 'Sridevi'
Photo courtesy of Sonia Manchanda

Surupa Sen, with Bijoyini Satpathy in the background
Photo courtesy of Sonia Manchanda

Surupa Sen of the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble
Photo courtesy of Sonia Manchanda

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