by Lewis J. Whittington for The Dance Journal
Three Aksha Dance Company artistic director Viji Rao’s devised a dazzling program of traditional and contemporary Indian dance titled “samAni” at the Painted Bride July 3. The performance was comprised of excerpts of eight years of repertory of classical Bharatanatyam pieces and contemporary variants by Rao. With 30 dancers and musicians in presented three acts, Rao displayed the scope of the company’s artistic lineage, as well as its pristine technique and artistry.
Among the many highlights
The opening piece “Mallari” is a pure dance tradition piece, movement based on rhythmic cycles of five beats, with the dancers wearing ankle bell bracelets that punctuate the foot patterning. As with many of the pieces on the program, the bells are in play with the recorded music, often in counterpoint, of sitar and percussive soundscapes that engulf the theater.
“Shanti Mantra” with the theme of universal peace based on tenets of Buddhism, is a communal dance of geometric patterns and eloquent Bharatanatyam classicism. The dancers drop to a deep yogic plie, and knee steps (Mandi Adavu), the movement and costumes creating traditional cultural images. Equally associated with Indian dance from antiquity, is Roa’s use of hand choreography, as well as expressive eye and head movement.
The choreography has opulent beauty in its specific lineage, but you don’t have to know any of the symbolism to be entranced by the combined effects. Similarly, the costumes with fabrics in muted reds, yellows and whites, and vibrant aqua, jade, gold, cerulean, among other vibrant colors, all resplendent in motion and represent dances heritage of India.
“Charya” danced by youngest members of Three Aksha, features simple choreography, with accents of Bharatanatyam laced in. The young dancers are Indian-American and are part of the Girard program, so they grew up in the US. Still, as Roa noted in her introduction, the students, some as young as six, have great interest in the heritage around India’s classic dance-arts. In performance, they may not always be in perfect unison on those sharp knee drops, for instance, but impress nonetheless as they dance with spirit, control and conviction.
The fast, swirling ensemble piece “Tarana” concluded the first act with Rao combining Bharatanatyam artistry with Katak dance for a contemporary dance feel.
Acts II brought on sanAmi’s stellar quintet of guest musicians- Bhavani Shankar on Mridangam (a double headed drum), violinist Thevarajah, John on sitar, Ajay Warrior and Viji Rao on vocals.
Guest dancers Prasanna Kasturi, director of Soorya Dance, based in St. Louis, MO and Samanvita Kasturi, his daughter, are virtuosos of Kathak movement, one of the six classical dance forms of India. It is indigenous to northern India and is a dance storytelling and pantomime, a discipline characterized by “pulsing” foot patterns and expressive upper body movement.
Prasanna Kasturi has been dancing for over five decades and also holds the world record for dancing 24 hours straight. In “Vandana and Nritta” based on prayers, they swirl around each other in choreographic dialogues, or swirling away from each other solo variations.
They followed with a series of solos- Prasanna danced “Jaagiye Raghunatha” pantomiming the wonders of nature and the joy of movement to depict the waking of child Rama. Samanvita danced the hypnotic solo “Tarana” a study of rhythmic structures that she dances with serene quicksilver drive. Prasanna took a moment out to note that he was being reunited with Bhavani Shankar onstage for the first time they toured Europe 24 years ago.
The expansive excerpts that comprised Act III, with pieces choreographed by Rao, just kept upping the ante in both artistry and Bharatanatyam choreographic range. Several of the dancers have been with Three Aksha and the esprit de corps and performance refinement is very much present.
The live music was as transporting as the dancers were hypnotic with the mystical poses, friezes and ensemble sculptures convey both earth-spiritual communal dances. Some of the most classic positions from tantric yoga disciplines, like a dancer reclined with her leg bent and her torso twisted back, recalled Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography used in “Afternoon of a Faun” but more likely that it was Nijinsky appropriating these images from the dances of ancient India. The dancers in a line, with arms in snaking out, creating the iconography of Shiva, the cosmic dance goddess and it was so fitting that her statue was placed at the side of the stage during the performance.
Photo Credit: Sudesh Singh
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Hi Lewis, I’m glad you reviewed this evening because I consider Viji one of the most important dance artists in Philadelphia, and her work is largely ignored by (white) funders, presenters, etc. I just wanted to point out that her name is spelled Rao, not Roa, and you can be certain that Nijinsky was appropriating this millenia-old dance form, as have many other “western” dance artists over the past century.
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