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Duke Performances opened its 2018-19 season with a return visit from the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble in a combined program with its sister from across the Indian Ocean, the Chitrasena Dance Company of Sri Lanka. The dual dance companies teamed up to present a program named Samhara, a quartet of dances depicting ancient religious texts featuring the Goddess Parvati, her consort Shiva, and a ballad of the love affair between Krishna and his love, Radha.
Nrityagram is the creation of its founder and artistic director Surupa Sen, who choreographed this program and is the lead dancer in it. She was joined onstage with five other dancers of her own troupe and two from Chitrasena. All the dancers are women and all dance barefoot. This practice allows the dancers to accentuate their steps with the percussive sound made by "slapping" the foot on the bare stage.
The first dance was the most complex, using a text from the Natya Shastra, an ancient treatise on dance and theater penned sometime between 200 BCE and 200 CE. The work, and thus the dance, encompasses theater, dance, and music, and is titled "Arpanam," (a prayer to invoke the benevolence of the Goddess Parvati). The dance is a depiction of the five elements: Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, and Ether.
The musicians were a critical part of these dances and were all onstage along with the dancers. They all sit in a row stage right, downstage to upstage, and, like this dance ensemble, were made up of both Indian and Sri Lankan performers. Leading the quartet was Jateen Sahu, who played the harmonium and sang lead vocals. Rohan Dahale provided chants and played the percussive mardala. Parshuram Das played alto and soprano bamboo flutes. They were joined by Waruna Shri Hemachandra on the Kandyan drum. Offstage, narration and the manjira (small hand cymbals) were provided by Sen.
These dancers were all dressed in a similar type of dance costume that is both form-fitting and loose enough to allow for the often-athletic moves made. The Indian dancers all wore this same dress, but in vivid different colors: scarlet, gold, and wine. Over these jumper-like costumes they wore either a wrapped skirt or a knotted belt of gold. They wore their hair up, in a gold head-dress. The Sri Lankan dancers wore something akin to this, but in two pieces: the pants weres in vivid colors, with gold tunics over bare midriffs. They wore their hair in single long, flowing braid that flowed down their backs.
The texts, translated from the original Sanskrit, were provided in the programs. In "Arpanam," we hear a prayer to Parvati, "Mother, Supreme Power of the Universe, Shiva's beloved." The dancers each seemed to dance a different dance while weaving in and out with one another. The precise movements of the hands invoke religious meanings, praise, and supplication to the Goddess. While the dance styles of the Indians and the Sris were subtly different, they combined in intricate and precise patterns.
In the second dance, "Shiva Ashtakam" (Ode to Shiva), we heard of Parvati's beloved, Shiva, a great "Yogi with a blissful countenance, perfect lover to his consort, dancer of the Cosmos." These three dancers depicted Shiva (dressed in gold) in intricate dance with two incarnations of the goddess – one Scarlet, and one Wine. The dance was both tender and athletically complex. At one point, Shiva, for the moment alone onstage, slowly bent her leg back behind her, balancing on the other foot, until the foot of the bent leg pointed directly upward, toward the sky. Of all the dexterity exhibited on this stage, that single precise maneuver pointedly displayed the exceptional abilities of these dancers.
The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, in combination with the Chitrasena Dance Company, brought to Duke a spectacle of dance that is reminiscent of their combined cultural backgrounds that dates far back from Christian times. The texts are holy and the dances, reverent, but they are also uniquely South Asian, accentuating the similarities between the two countries' pasts and invoking harmony between the two.
Duke Performances presented Samhara again Sunday afternoon, September 23, in the Reynolds Industries Theater, located in the Bryan Student Center on the Duke campus. Note that there is a fee for parking in the parking deck immediately adjacent. See our sidebar for more details.