For her latest project, choreographer Lata Pada travelled to India to hold auditions. The artistic director of Toronto-based Sampradaya Dance Creations was in search of full-time professional bharata natyam dancers, a rare breed in Canada. She hired three women — Kirti Ramgopal, Viji Rao and Harini Shreekanth — and three men — Fail Bikmoulline, Sathyanarayana Raju and T.K. Thiruchelwam. The double bill Sampradaya presented on an eleven-city Canadian tour showcased these dancers’ keen artistry in bharata natyam, as well as their willingness to try something different.
Pada choreographed the opening, hour-long “Vivarta — Manifestations of Vishnu” using classical bharata natyam movement, but it’s not a strictly traditional work. Bharata natyam as it is practiced today has evolved into something very different from its origin centuries ago in South India, when it was part of the daily ritual of temple dancers. Then, it was a solo dance performed by women. Now, as in “Vivarta,” both women and men perform it, as often in ensembles as alone, on the concert stage.
The devotional aspects remain integral to the art form, however, and “Vivarta” is based on a mythological theme. A voice-over near the start of the piece tells the story of Lord Vishnu, one of the triad of Hindu divinity. Whenever the order of the world is destroyed, Vishnu returns to earth to restore righteousness and harmony. Each time, he takes on a different incarnation — as a fish, tortoise, boar, man-lion and a variety of human forms.
Hearing the complicated story, I panicked. I am not an expert in Indian mythology or in bharata natyam, and began to feel at sea. I knew I wouldn’t remember the plot details and somehow only one sentence, a description of Vishnu, stood out: “He is infinite space and eternal time.” This proved to be enough. While I didn’t remember the myth (the recap above comes from the program note), and couldn’t follow the precise meaning of every movement, the general intentions were clear through the fully embodied mimetic dance (nritya) and the use of the face and body to represent emotion (abhinaya). Overall, I was content to understand what I could and to miss what I couldn’t. It’s not always easy to follow the plots of story ballets, either, especially on first viewing.
What I could easily appreciate was the sculptural shapes and dynamic movement of the expressive bodies in space and time. In other words, I knew what “Vivarta” was about at a fundamental, choreographic level, and found it glorious.
In the opening vignette, the dancers bound on stage full of vigour and grace. Their sure, forceful arms and hands are crowned with fingers splayed like spiky flowers in the familiar gestures of bharata natyam. They move together in perfect unison in Pada’s crisp, rhythmic composition. The angular architecture of bharata natyam is formally yet warmly expressed, as Pada makes full use of the body in multi-dimensional space, including both thrilling speed and attack and a gentler flow.
The set design by a Bangalore company, Rainmakers, features a black backdrop and banners decorated with striking red and gold symbols relating to Vishnu. Lakshmi Srinath, from Chennai, costumed the dancers in simplified, traditional pant-like skirts in glowing silks. There was little jewellery for either women or men and, with simple hairstyles, the overall effect was luxurious but not ostentatious.
“Vivarta” was followed by the forty-minute “HowZaat!”, based on the game of cricket. The work was developed through improvisation with the dancers. The martial art form kallari, along with poses and movement taken from cricket players and even a bit of break dancing are all visibly present. There is nothing clearly recognizable from the vocabulary of bharata natyam.
After a film outlining the history of cricket in India, with an amusing song about “men in white,” “HowZaat!” launches into the first of a handful of theatrical episodes. The six dancers are like children playing cricket on the street, skipping, throwing balls (mimed) and expressing glee. Later, a game between rival nations India and Pakistan ends in a happy tie. Throughout, Pada uses mime to recreate various games and situations rather than abstracting the movement to make dance. The actual dance phrases for the ensemble are straightforward in steps and rhythms, looking like disco routines. The solos, too, are tame, although there are a few lovely leaps from one male dancer (the Russian Bikmoulline) and some break dance floor work from another.
A mirrored projection screen is the major set piece, based on an original design by Arnim Friess for England’s Chitraleka Dance Company. It is placed mid-stage, cutting the dancing space in half and leaving the dancers looking cramped. While the high-tech screen allows for some great effects, such as allowing the dancers to be seen reflected on the mirrored surface while film is simultaneously back projected, the film itself tends to be dark and difficult to see.
The composer for “HowZaat!’ is Raghupathy Dixit, the founder of Antaragni, a Bangalore-based world music band. Praveen D. Rao and Anoor Ananthakrishna Sharma composed the more traditional sounding score for “Vivarta”. Pada hired three musicians from India — a violinist, a percussionist and a vocalist — who are positioned upstage for the two works, and perform over a recording for twelve musicians. This effectively adds the texture of live music to the much larger sound made possible by the recording.
I appreciate the attempt in “HowZaat!” to bring politics and social history onto the stage, but I feel the dance and the politics were shortchanged. “Vivarta,” on the other hand, has its own share of politics while also fully attending to the art of creating exceptional dance. For instance, Pada explained in a post-show Q&A that gender issues were part of the first section of “HowZaat!”, in reflecting her childhood cricket experience when girls weren’t allowed to hold the bat and would be stuck somewhere off in the field. Without this background information, however, this story element is not readily apparent. In “Vivarta,” although there is no explicit feminist agenda, sexual politics are present at a deep, embodied level through the equality between male and female dancers, who each took on movement that was fierce and muscular as well as gentle and graceful.
By Kaija Pepper