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Entrances and Exits

The Indian dance company Nrityagram, which specializes in the East Indian dance form Odissi, has been a frequent visitor to New York since the nineties. Each visit has been revelatory in some way. For years that revelatory quality seemed intimately linked to the choreographic relationship between the company’s director and choreographer, Surupa Sen, and its main star, Bijayini Satpathy. The two have performed solos and duets of breathtaking beauty and complexity during which time seemed to stop, and the audience tried not to blink for fear of missing something.

Performance

Nrityagram + Chitrasena, “Āhuti”

Place

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, May 10, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

Thaji Dias in “Poornāratī.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

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Time has passed and things have changed. Satpathy has moved on to a solo career. And in the current tour, in which the company is performing Surupa Sen’s work “Āhuti,” Sen does not appear among the dancers. (Instead, she chants from the side of the stage, seated with the other musicians.) But watching “Āhuti” it is difficult not to feel that Sen’s choreographic imagination has only grown in the time since the company’s last visit. The choreography and structure of the work is even more complex, even more layered and agile and rich, than before.

From left: Abhinaya Rohan, Anoushka Rahman, Pavithra Reddy in “Sankirtanam.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

Sen is both a traditionalist and an innovator. She’s not a “contemporary” choreographer in the sense that she doesn’t turn her back on Odissi’s sacred sources or radically change the costuming or reject traditional themes. But even a non-expert can see that her choreographies are in fact radical and new, that they shake up the way the stage space is used in Odissi, creating complex spatial relationships between multiple dancers. Her musicality and geometries are extremely sophisticated and varied, with constant entrances and exits, shifts in rhythm, counterpoint, call and response, canons, asymmetry, and more. You have no idea what will happen next, and are constantly surprised, delighted, stimulated by what is happening onstage.

“Āhuti” is the second work in which she brings together a group of Odissi dancers with a smaller number of Kandyan dancers from the Chitrasena Dance Company, based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Odissi was originally a sacred dance performed by women who were linked to temples; Kandyan dance, also based in temples (in the Central Hills region of Sri Lanka) was danced by men. Their dance vocabularies share certain elements—a turned-out pose, deep bends in the legs, and a few steps—but are also extremely different. The movement in Odissi is generally softer, rounder, more detailed and more subtle; that of Kandyan Dance more erect, muscular, athletic and large-scale. Kandyan dance includes the most wonderful leaps. Odissi dancers use their faces with greater vividness and are great storytellers. Both dances were codified and adapted for the stage by important 20th century masters.

Kushan Dharmarathna and Thaji Dias in “Ālāp.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

What Sen has done is to take freely from both dance forms, intertwining them in a fascinating conversation characterized by freedom of movement, intense repartee, and wit. Neither group is asked to alter the basic precepts of their movement language, but both are energized and stimulated by contact with the other. The Odissi dancers gain more rhythmic attack; the Kandyan dancers become more vivid storytellers. The music, which combines a constantly evolving tapestry of rhythms and melodies for voice, flute, and violin, is like a series of musical landscapes, within which the dancers move with a mix of abandon and precision. (The extraordinary musicians are Jateen Sahu, Rohan Dahale, Parshuram Das, Siba Nayak, Koshan Mapatuna, and Sen.) There was a solo in the final Ālāp section in which one of the Kandyan dancers, Thaji Dias, seemed to launch into the dance equivalent of a jazz improvisation. Everything she did looked as if it had been invented on the spot, fresh, alive.

Throughout the evening, Sen has provided the dancers with little solos, so that they register not just as exemplars of their dance style but as individuals. They break out from the group to show a little gem of movement, before melting back into the ensemble. That ensemble is never static. It constantly finds ways to subdivide, as dancers come and go, weave through, circle around, cross over, or join forces with each other.

Two of the dancers, Pavithra Reddy (from Nrityagram) and Thaji Dias (from Chitrasena) stand out, and for them, Sen has created some of the most beautiful, most difficult passages. Reddy, a longtime member of Nrityagram, began her studies at the related school as a child. Dias, the grand-daughter of the guru who adapted Kandyan dance for the stage (Chitrasena), has dance in her blood. Both her mother, her grandmother, and several aunts were also dancers. Her dancing has a bracing, clear, decisive quality. Both women emanate joy and a kind of rapture onstage.

Thaji Dias and Pavithra Reddy in "Invoking Shiva." Photograph by Steven Pisano

In “Invoking Shiva,” they perform a vibrant duet, in which they exchange steps and imagery, each performing with her own accent. Reddy sits, perfectly still, as Dias dances around her, with spinning hops and barrel jumps. Later, Dias kneels, and Reddy spins around her. They are planets orbiting around each other, contrasting forces that in the end become one, in total stillness and harmony.

Though pure dance predominates in “Āhuti,” there are also moments of storytelling and description. At the end of “Poornārāti,” the dancers appear to pull Reddy forward, as if with invisible ropes. In the final section, the dancers take part in an imaginary game of dice. In “Invoking Shiva,” there is the usual physical description of Shiva’s matted locks, the flowing of the river Ganga (one arm undulating to the side), and the third eye in the center of the forehead. The Kandyan dancers are less detailed actors—Dias explained after the show that there is no acting in traditional Kandyan dance—but, like their dancing, their gestures and facial expressions are statuesque, strong. Both groups display great virtuosity: steady balances on one leg, deep backbends, acrobatic poses, jumps and more jumps.

All this makes for a very exciting night at the theater. If “Āhuti” lacks the almost cosmic lyricism of some of Sen’s earlier work, particularly her duets with Satpathy, it also suggests that she has found even greater freedom and boldness in her choreographic vision. Perhaps by removing herself form the stage, she is also looking at her dancers in a different way, seeing their potential and guiding them toward it. They appear unleashed, empowered.

Marina Harss


Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.

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