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"Lavanya" means graceful, but unfortunately that title was not accurate for the program of North Indian dancing in Reynolds Theater on September 11. Lavanya: Graceful Expressions of the East was presented by the Indian Classical Music and Dance Society and co-sponsored by Duke Performances, as part of its Living Traditions series. One has come to expect extremely high standards of artistry and presentation from this series (put together for many years under the rubric of the Duke Institute of the Arts), so it was quite shocking to be disappointed by an awkward program.
The dancers were by no means terrible, but they were handicapped in the performances by their minimal numbers and even more by the program's attempt to mix two styles of dancing, the Odissi and the Manipuri. The two traditions share dance narratives and basic structures, but their dancers perform very differently. The stated intention was to present the contrast between the styles and an opportunity for the traditions to blend. They may have mixed, but they did not blend, either visually or kinesthetically.
Odissi dance, from the eastern state of Orissa, is one of India's great classical styles, and is much crisper and more forceful than Manipuri dance, which originates in the hills of the Northeast. Hand and eye movements are dramatic and distinct in Odissi dance, and the style is distinguished by the characteristic three-part articulation of the body and a strong sense of groundedness. Manipuri dancers, in contrast, move fluidly and are very, very light on their feet, seeming almost weightless in their jumps. They whirl elegantly, and the repertoire of movements includes a rapid turn on the knees that I would have said was impossible had I not seen it. Both styles make use of rich costumes and numerous gorgeous accessories and body ornaments, but unfortunately the colors and shapes of the one style clash badly with those of the other.
Four of the program's six works mixed the two styles and none of these pieces were at all satisfactory. But the second half began with "Naba Durga," an Odissi invocation of the Goddess Durga, embodiment of female strength in Hindu teachings. Danced by Sreyashi Dey and Manoranjan Pradhan, this piece at least gave a hint of the glory of the form. However, for anyone who saw many of the same sequences in the remarkable performance at the 2003 ADF by the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble , "Sri - In Search of the Goddess," this homage was a little weak. Dey is a much more accomplished dancer than Pradhan, and his lesser control and finesse were a drag on Dey's expressiveness.
The two Manipuri dancers, Poushali Chatterjee and Debanjana Roy, had their moment with "Pontha Jagoi," a work showing a competition between Radha and Lord Krishna. The Radha figure wore a traditional Manipuri skirt, which is like a cross between a hoop skirt and a highly decorated lampshade, very stiff and sparkly; and Krishna had a fine headdress. To tell the truth, it was a lot more interesting looking at those things than at the dancing, which seemed wimpy rather than delicate, its fluidity at odds with the stiff costumes.
Although the program did not succeed aesthetically, with its double focus and less-than-stellar dancing, it was informational. But we don't go to the theater for information. Perhaps next season we will be offered an Indian dance program of artistry rather than pedantry.