When we talk about classical dancing in the West we are usually referring to ballet, a form with its roots in the social dances of the 15th century. Some 1,500 years before that there was already another fully developed classical tradition, in India, possibly even richer and more elaborate than those we know today. With stories often drawn from complex mythological tales like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, a movement vocabulary full of delicate isolations and intricate postures, and a theoretical base linked to a mature aesthetic, it would be easy to get lost in the details of style and heritage. Fortunately, the performance of the Odissi Dance Ensemble of India in Nrityagram was easy to watch if you knew a little or a lot.
Odissi Dance Ensemble
Rialto Theater, Tacoma, April 9
Like much Indian dance, Odissi was once a part of religious practice, and the dancers were devotees of the temple. The work was developed in that enclosed environment, and the results are a style with an emphasis on subtle variations. In a reverse from the standard ballet practice, the upper body is responsible for a great deal of rhythmic and physical dexterity. At times it seems like every joint is moving in a different direction, while the face conveys a quick survey of emotions. The detail even extends to the eyes, which are constantly darting or vibrating. Underneath all these gyrations the lower body digs powerfully into the ground, mirroring the rhythm of the music. The incredible complexity keeps you leaning forward in your seat—like watching the inside of a clock you want to get closer to in order to see all the parts.
In the narrative works specific gestures will identify the characters, so that one or two dancers can perform several roles. An upflung arm is the trunk of a "drunken elephant carelessly destroying the lotus field," and a flickering hand at the base of the spine is the tail of the deer as it bounds through the woods. In the solo "Sita Haran," based on an episode in the Ramayana, one dancer portrays six major characters, constantly shifting from old to young, male to female, human to animal. The most chilling was the demon king Ravana, as he kidnapped Sita, the wife of Rama. With an outstretched arm and a hand slowly circling above his head like a whip, he drives his chariot through the sky, reminiscent of both Apollo the Sun God and Simon Legree.
"Nrityagram" was both the title of the concert and the name of the ensemble's school. It was founded as a "dance village," where aspirants study in a traditional setting, caring for their guru and raising their own food as well as practicing their art. By linking the style of their education to their performance, founder Protima Gauri has made a contemporary version of the ancient temples, which may help ensure the health of a complex tradition.