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Serendipity

There seems to be no clear organizing principle behind the programs at the yearly Fall for Dance festival at New York City Center. No principle, that is, beyond the very laudable one of offering a wide range of dance from various corners of the world to the public at a very accessible price.

Programs can be hit or miss, it’s true, but there’s usually at least one item that quickens the pulse. In the final program (program five) of the festival, that was Bijayini Satpathy’s performance of the Odissi solo “Sitāharan,” a retelling of an episode from the fifth century BC epic the “Ramayana.” I call it a solo, but in reality it is a quintet, danced by Satpathy, sung (with gorgeous tone) by the vocalist Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy, and played by Sanjib Kumar Kunda, Sibasankar Satapathy, and Srinibas Satapathy on violin, mardala drum, and flute. (The latter two are Satpathy’s brothers.) All traveled from India.

Performance

Fall for Dance, program 5,

Place

New York City Center, New York, NY, October 7 & 8, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

Bijayini Satpathy performs “Sitāharan.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

The solo was choreographed by the prominent early twentieth-century revivalist of the Odissi dance form Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, and further refined by one of his students, Protima Gauri, and passed on to Satpathy. The choreography encompasses no less than six characters, including a woman (Sita), a deer, an eagle, a hunter (Ram), and a demon. One of the most fascinating aspects of classical Indian dance is the way it tells stories through music, song, and the human body. And Satpathy is one of the most skilled physical storytellers in any art-form. With every part of her body, Satpathy transforms herself into the character she is embodying, animal or human, male or female. She is a shape-shifter.

At the start of the solo, to the rapid rhythms of the mardala drum, Satpathy leaps out from the wings, springing across the stage with her torso pitched forward. She is a deer careening through the forest. She stops for a moment, shaking her tail (one hand) and muzzle (the other hand), as if testing the air. Then, as Sita, she walks voluptuously to a window and opens it to listen. As Ram, she carefully selects an arrow, calmly taking aim. As the story proceeds, she moves quickly or slowly, with legato phrasing or with staccato jumps, each transition clear and equally finely-tuned. Until, by the end, she has become a wounded eagle, falling vertiginously from the sky. Satpathy’s responsiveness to the music and to Narayanaswamy’s voice transforms all this into a pitched drama that one follows with bated breath. The audience, many of whom were seeing classical Indian dance for the first time, was transfixed. 

German Louvet and Hugo Marchand in “Songs of a Wayfarer” by Maurice Béjart. Photograph by Steven Pisano

That is the thing about Fall for Dance—there is something for everyone. For ballet lovers, there were two dancers—étoiles no less—from the Paris Opéra Ballet performing a duet, “Songs of a Wayfarer” by Maurice Béjart created in 1971 for Nureyev and Paolo Bortoluzzi. (The duet was staged here by Maina Gielgud, who danced for Béjart in the sixties.) It embodies, rather abstractly, the struggles of a young man against loneliness and despair, to Gustav Mahler’s eponymous song cycle, in a recording by the legendary lieder singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The duet requires two men of glamour and charisma, like the two who originated it. Germain Louvet and Hugo Marchand did not disappoint. Both are dancers of a type that is less common here in the US: humans of a physical beauty that seems almost impossible to understand, intentionally created for the art of ballet. Their perfectly sculpted limbs, arched feet, and faces belong in a painting by Boticelli or Caravaggio. 

Their arabesques, beaten jumps, and devéloppés are equally beautiful, even if their turns are perhaps not quite as perfect. Béjart’s choreography, somewhat static, consists mainly of unfoldings of the leg to the side, deep squats with one foot on tiptoe—the better to show those arches!— and arms stretching into the air with fingers splayed. One man (Marchand) is the other’s shadow and later his support, as the other (Louvet) appears to gradually lose strength and hope. At one point, they walk arm in arm around the stage; later Marchand gently cradles Louvet in his arms. The choreography isn’t particularly imaginative, but it is effective. It conveys despair and loss with great simplicity of means, as the relationship between the two men becomes more entwined. The French dancers were moving, though perhaps not quite as moving as Joseph Gordon, of New York City Ballet, and David Hallberg, of American Ballet Theatre, who performed the duet some years ago at The Joyce Theater. (Gielgud set it then as well.) Gordon’s approach to the steps was simpler, more direct, and somehow shattering.

Grupo Corpo in “Gira.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

As most programs at Fall for Dance do, this one ended with a big ensemble work, in this case “Gira,” a dance based on Umbanda religious practices, performed by the Brazilian ensemble Grupo Corpo. Grupo Corpo used to come fairly often to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The dancers are fantastic. They dance with their whole bodies, head to toes, backs, arms, hips, ankles and torsos. Their energy and ability to show rhythmic complexity at breakneck speed is cause for joy. But Paulo Pederneiras’s “Gira,” despite a fantastic Yoruba-inspired score by the Brazilian band Metá Metá (in a recording) and intensely physical, virtuosic dancing, outlasts its welcome. If it were half as long, it would be twice as exciting. 

So ends another season of Fall for Dance. The festival’s popularity and value lie in its variety, in the idea that dance is for everyone, and that all dance has an audience. It is a wonderfully humanistic and democratic premise. Does it always result in perfect programs? No. But if you’re lucky you just might get to experience something as transformative as “Sitāharan,” or to see great dancers from the Paris Opéra or Grupo Corpo. It’s a pretty good deal.

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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