Dance review: Nrityagram Dance Ensemble's Songs of Love & Longing | Arts

Dance review: Nrityagram Dance Ensemble's Songs of Love & Longing


Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy in Songs of Love & Longing - PHOTO BY NAN MELVILLE / COURTESY OF DUKE PERFORMANCES
  • photo by Nan Melville / courtesy of Duke Performances
  • Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy in Songs of Love & Longing
Nrityagram Dance Ensemble: Songs of Love & Longing
Reynolds Industries Theater, Durham
Thursday, Jan. 22, 8 p.m.

At Reynolds Theater, courtesy of Duke Performances, Nrityagram Dance Ensemble’s Songs of Love & Longing enticed a sold-out house with alluring movement and arresting facial expressions from the Indian classical dance style Odissi. The 85-minute production by the world-class company consisted of five sections, all based on verses from the Gita Govinda. A well-known work by the 12th-century poet Jayadeva, it depicts the various moods of a lovelorn heroine. Specifically, the verses focus on the mercurial feelings of the milkmaid Radha towards her lover, the deity Krishna.

In this production, Radha talks to her sakhi (maid-friend) about missing Krishna. The sentiments quickly turn to jealousy when Radha thinks of Krishna’s charming demeanor and his various milkmaid friends. The sakhi gives Radha a letter from Krishna, which tells Radha to meet him at a specific location. Radha waits and waits, yet Krishna is nowhere to be found.

Much later, Krishna arrives and shows signs of having been with another woman. Radha, furious, castigates him and advises him to leave. Krishna, repenting for his actions, comes back and pronounces his eternal love for Radha. In the final section, Radha and Krishna reunite in sensual choreography.

Odissi, originating from the eastern Indian state of Odisha (formerly Orissa), is a dance style that emphasizes graceful upper body movements, percussive footwork and proficiency in esoteric facial expressions. Some signature stances and movements of Odissi include isolated torso movements, the chouka stance and the tribhangi stance. The chouka and tribhangi stances contrast with each other. The former is a square-like leg stance with bent knees, with a 6-inch gap between the turned-out feet. The latter is a three-point bend, in which the head and hip project in one direction and the chest in the opposite direction.

The production centered on the concept of “Eka Aharya” abhinaya, literally translated as “one costume” acting. The dancers did not wear costumes to distinguish the characters of Radha and Krishna. Instead, they donned traditional Odissi recital costumes and sultry eye makeup to highlight the facial expressions. The dancers also switched characters in the middle of the production. Essentially, it was a test of the strength in the dancers’ abhinaya.

Each section began with introductory narration, and all but the last included an abhinaya demonstration to go along with the narration. With linear leg extensions and sinuous tribhangis, it was apparent that the dancers embodied every nuance of Odissi meticulously. The dance highlights were in the final section showing Radha and Krishna uniting as one.

Introducing Radha through the feminine tribhangi stance and Krishna through the masculine chouka stance, the section was laden with innovative choreography. The dancers’ depiction of a bee obtaining nectar from a flower was an ideal personification of Radha and Krishna’s reunion. Torso movements requiring high levels of skill were sprinkled throughout this section.

The concept of the show was intriguing and the execution of the dance was phenomenal. It was a given that this production would be more abhinaya-centric (expressionistic), rather than nritta-based (pure dance). However, the few nritta sequences were a refreshing break against the intensity of the sringara abhinaya (expressions of love), and demonstrated finesse in the style. The addition of more nritta sequences could have further embellished the production.

However, the concept and execution also led to some confusion. Relying on the dancers’ acting led to a sophisticated game of charades, made more abstruse by how the dancers switched roles. During the third section, the dancer portraying Radha suddenly became Krishna, and vice-versa. The narration seemed to start with Bijayini Satpathy demonstrating the emotions of Radha, but then Surupa Sen, who had played Krishna in earlier sections, took on the role for Radha for the dancing. The role changes were explained in the brochure, but viewers who did not read it might have been confused.

Still, the performance translated to a transcendent experience. The boundaries between the dancers, orchestra and audience were blurred as the dance delineated the passages of love and longing. In ballet, the orchestra is seated in a pit that is not visible to the audience, but in Indian classical styles, the orchestra is given equal prominence, seated on the right side of the stage. Uniformed in Indian attire, even the orchestra’s synchronized curtain call exemplified an attention to detail in every aspect of the performance.

Nrityagram Dance Ensemble is a renowned Odissi-based dance group with a learning village, where a community of dancers lives and learns together, based near Bangalore, a city otherwise known as the “Silicon Valley of India.” While the group adheres to the rules of Indian classical dance, it strives to tailor its themes for a 21st-century audience. The choreography is a manifestation of this mission, and sets the group apart from other Odissi dancers. Songs of Love & Longing brought authentic Indian flavor to the Triangle; the thought of future shows would be much anticipated. 

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