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I’ve been extremely fortunate to see a great deal of very fine dance of many types in my life, including a variety of Indian classical dance. But rarely have I seen a program of any kind as exquisite as that given in Memorial Hall by Kuchipudi dancer Shantala Shivalingappa.
Carolina Performing Arts presented Shivalingappa in 2011, and she appeared again as part of CPA’s “CPA10 Artist” series of performers who have stood out in ten years of programming. The years have only made her a stronger and more beautiful dancer. Although the program was in some ways quite similar to that of 2011, Akasha, the five-dance Kuchipudi recital (2013) she performed, was more artistically evolved and proffered more information to the viewer unfamiliar with the referenced deities and symbology of the ancient style.
Some of that information was in the program and some in the recorded English language prelude to each section, but some was in the dances themselves and in the powerful lighting design by Nicolas Boudier. Four musicians were on stage, seated two together on each side and playing when Shivalingappa entered upstage center. Slender crescents of light cradled her dark form, and then one beautiful hand emerged into a cone of brilliance and began its story. It was like being present at the beginning of the world, and when the dancer came fully into the light wrapped in saffron silk heavy with gold, the only suitable response was reverence. In this dance, which she choreographed, she salutes the Supreme Being, one of whose forms is the great Ganesha, elephant-headed, with feet like lotus. Shivalingappa is slender and elegant, yet she can evoke the elephant with a rolling gait and its trunk with the muscular swinging of her arms. Simultaneously, she employs the rich language of gesture and expression so essential to Kuchipudi style.
Vempati Ravi Shankar choreographed the four remaining dances, and each was more charming and lovely than the one preceding it. As opposed to the rich sensuality of Odissi, the rhythmic forcefulness of Kathak, or the less refined storytelling of Bharatnatyam, grace and precision are hallmarks of Kuchipudi style, and it is hard to imagine that there is a practitioner alive today who can render the ancient dance-stories with greater elegance and exactitude than Shivalingappa. The feet and legs certainly have their role, especially in the delightful little leaps, the deep pliés and the whirls, but in Kuchipudi the torso, arms, and face do more. The neat head is beautifully decorated with pearls and flowers, the hair sleek and pinned, and the eyes emphasized with kohl, so that the dancer’s communicative expressions are always visible. The hands and feet, too, are artfully decorated with carmine, so one is always aware of the pulsing life-force under the skin. As the arms, hands and fingers speak the ritualized gestures, they flash through the air like flocks of chattering birds. Shivalingappa’s hands are a little large proportionally and, with their carmine edging and vivacious activity, seemed at moments like autonomous creatures perched on her slim wrists, at the endpoints of the exquisite lines of her arms.
There are rhythms in Kuchipudi, of course – in fact, a traditional set of rhythmic groupings that combine in different ways. Shivalingappa’s musicians – percussionists, a flutist, and a vocalist – either wrote the music or arranged it from traditional songs. They were very strong on this occasion, especially flutist K.S. Jayaran (and he, especially in the dance “Krishnam Kalaya,” for Lord Krishna plays a divine flute). But the drummers had several minutes in the light with a splendid duet on the mridangams (double headed drums) that ushered in the final segment on Shiva, creator and protector, terrible destroyer, lord of the dance. This, the most forceful of the dances, made manifest the philosophy of circularity. Destruction and death lead to new beginnings. A dance ends, another begins. As the lights dimmed on this one, Shivalingappa seated herself upstage. Soon only the pale speaking hands floated in the darkness, the fingers dancing to the ever-renewing rhythm of the drums.