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One reason the American Dance Festival is such a wonderful annual event is that it literally brings the world to Durham, or at least a lot of the world's dancers, so that over the weeks of the festival, we see not only phenomenal art in a range of styles, but also slices of the astonishing diversity of values and philosophies that inform the world's cultures. Not surprisingly, viewers respond differently to the presentations, depending on their own known or unconscious beliefs and values. Often art distills or crystallizes some previously inchoate thought or feeling in the viewer - and a kinetic art like dance can do so with an explosive power. On July 1, in Reynolds Theatre, Nrityagram Dance Ensemble (http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Hub/4772/centres/nrityagram.html [inactive 2/04]) uncapped a wellspring of longing for the holy purity that is possible in art.
Nrityagram is both an ensemble and a place, a "dance village" outside of Bangalore, India. This village, which is supported by grants and donations, is home to about two dozen dancers who live, work, and study together for several years in an almost cloistered atmosphere. Founded in 1990 by Protima Gauri to preserve and popularize the seven classical dance styles of India, along with two styles of martial dance arts, Nrityagram is more than a dance school. It is a place of empowerment, a place for deep learning. Not only do the dancers train in the complex forms and demanding techniques of Indian classical dance, but they also study Sanskrit, mythology and epic poetry - and they practice martial arts, meditation and yoga. And they grow their own food.
All these forms of practice and their devotion to them are evident in their splendid dances. The evening in Durham opened with "Sri Savitri," choreographed by Surupa Sen, the group's artistic director and one of the five dancers for this program. For this work, Sen drew on the classical dance form from northeast India called Odissi, which was originally performed as part of sacred rituals in temples. But she also drew on the work of contemporary American dancers she had learned from in a previous visit to ADF, melding the two dance languages together with yoga postures and martial movements to create something unique, thrillingly beautiful, and spiritually moving.
Sri is the divine female principle and also earthly woman. Sri is consciousness and flesh; she is to be found through both rationality and sensuality, together. "Sri Savitri" is set to music by Ganesh-Kumaresh and was inspired by an epic poem by Aurobindo about a mythological heroine who challenges Death and finds her goddess-power. The dance's three sections - Night, Fire, and Death - are kaleidoscopes of cycling symbols. As the stage gradually lightens, the brilliantly dressed dancers seem to create the world from nothing - the world of woman and all her power. Their open-legged stances emphasize strong hips and thighs; their movements are fluid as water; they balance like trees in the wind, rooted to earth. One moment they are temple sculptures. Another, they are birthing mothers, then destroying warriors. In another instant they are no longer bodies, but souls visualized - but then again embodied, and always female. The dancers pile and build and tumble, they turn and stamp and extend - and all the while they use dozens of movements - bits of language - that one never sees in American or European dance. Their hands are so eloquent, and their faces glow with expression and joy.
The program's second half, three dances in the classical Odissi style, was no less beautiful, if not quite as inventive as the first half. The exploration of Sri continued, with "Srimayi," a dance simultaneously devotional and seductive based on the story of Radha and Krishna. Choreographed by Sen and danced by Bijayini Satpathy to music by Pt. Bhubaneshwar Mishra, this dance made even greater use of Odissi's rich lexicon of stylized movements (the eyes alone have 28, each with meaning). A novice viewer can't pretend to understand every nuance, or even the outlines of the story, but the feeling comes through perfectly.
Then followed Ayona Bhaduri, Priyambada Pattanaik, and Pavithra Reddy dancing "Arabhi Pallavi," restaged by Surupa Sen from the original choreography by Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra and set to music by Pt. Bhubaneshwar Mishra. This Odissi dance evokes Sri as Woman and was extremely beautiful. It was as if the temple sculptures, in all their small-waisted, big-breasted, hip-canting, sidelong-smiling glory, had turned from stone to flesh and color, giving "statuesque" a whole new meaning.
Surupa Sen joined the other four women on stage for the final dance, "Sridevi," which she also choreographed, to music by Pt. Raghunath Panigrahi. For this praisesong and prayer to the mother goddess, the dancers wore ankle bracelets of little bells so that the slapping of their bare feet took on a shimmering sound. As the chant-like music increased in tempo and the dancers' precise movements grew ever faster and their faces more radiant, it seemed that the very colors of their costumes became more saturated and that sweet scents filled the air. Then there was nothing but the dance, and it was everything: awe and love.