Nrityagram Dance Ensemble
by Carmel Morgan
March 19, 2009 -- Music Center at Strathmore, Marriott Concert Stage, Bethesda, Maryland
Nrityagram is an Indian “dance village,” which is home to an all-female dance ensemble of the same name. The dancers practice Odissi, an ancient Indian dance form. At the village, company members live together and study their art. In this holistic community, in addition to intensive dance training, the dancers learn literature, mythology, poetry, Sanskrit, music, aesthetics, history of dance, philosophy, spiritual thought, and dance theory. They also participate in workshops in martial arts, yoga, mime, meditation, sculpture, etc. So that Odissi is revitalized and preserved, residential dance training programs are free to select students for a period of three to six years. The end result is a dance company whose synchronicity and skill in Odissi is unparalleled.
The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble made its debut in New York in 1996, and the company has toured the United States annually. The company’s newest production, “Pratima: Reflection,” was commissioned by the Joyce Theater’s Stephen and Cathy Weinroth Fund for New Work. The work premiered in New York at the Joyce Theater in February 2008.
“Pratima: Reflection” has six parts – beginning with a hymn of creation and ending with an offering of light. Religion obviously informs the Odissi tradition, and the dancers seem more god-like than human. The work begins in pitch black darkness, as creation must have also started. Anticipation builds as out of this nothingness emerge smoky blue clouds (dry ice), the tinkling of bells, and a narrator’s voice. Eventually there is a quartet of colorfully clad women, all wearing classical Indian dance attire: wide-legged pants and gold jewels – necklaces, bracelets, and belts. They unpeel red-tipped fingers in prayerful poses. Their faces are animated, and, frankly, slightly spooky. The eyes of the dancers are bright and wide. They look simultaneously possessed, ecstatically blissful, and extremely wise.
Through intricate movements stories are told. Certain duets playfully reflect mirror images. Dancers’ hips nearly touch as their bodies move jointly, side by side. What is particularly striking is the way in which the dancers’ upper bodies come to life. Their heads, chins, necks, shoulders, wrists, and hands curve in unique ways that are simply unknown in Western dance. Since these movements do not resemble every day activity, the dancers take on a magical, otherworldly air. They seem like they are dancing for a higher power and are also propelled by it.
Most of the dancing is lyrical, displaying incredible ease, flow, and control. One thinks of refinement and dignity, not the showiness of Bollywood numbers. However, the faster Odissi dancing includes slapping feet and upper bodies that move intriguingly in different directions from the dancers’ fiery legs. A black curtain behind the dancers accentuates the remarkable precision of their arm positions.
Especially enjoyable was a section of “Pratima: Reflection” titled “Mugdha (lost in love).” The dancers, young maidens, express their devotion for Krishna. Their eyebrows even dance! Clearly, the positions of their fingers are imbued with meaning. Their chests heave, and their hands rest lightly on their hips. Even without understanding the exact sign language of the dance, it is obvious the women have a serious crush on Krishna. The dancers fall back in rapt admiration of the invisible god.
Also very enjoyable was a section called “Vibhakta (the division).” Two dancers take the roles of man and woman, yin and yang. Their dancing has a mythic quality. They face opposite directions at times, showing the duality of the human spirit. Their arms join in fantastic shapes, exhibiting the closeness of a married couple. At one point, the pair rapidly spins, like in a folk dance, each with a single arm curled around the waist of the other.
The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble successfully carries on the classical tradition of Odissi and is a national treasure of India that should not be missed.