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Sharira--Fire and Desire

Chandralekha and Company

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, September 8 and 9

The natural response to seeing something wholly foreign is to grope for connections to the familiar. Unsophisticated Americans (including this one) experiencing the art and culture of India are hard-pressed to understand it without resorting to the stereotypes thoughtfully supplied by colonialism: the East must be Mysterious because it's not us.

This makes the Dance Center of Columbia College's decision to sponsor the conference "Bharatanatyam in the Diaspora: Spiritual, Classical and Contemporary" all the more important--but the performances pose a challenge to novice audiences. Bharatanatyam, the classical dance of south India, originated in the temple as a form of worship and religious instruction, telling mythic and devotional stories. Banned by the British raj (as the hula was banned by Hawaii's American occupiers), it has been compelled in the last 70 years to carry not only its own cultural meaning but a substantial share of the claim for the legitimacy of India's entire culture.

Though the name may be unfamiliar, the gestures of bharatanatyam are not. The highly articulated arm movements--paying homage to the multilimbed god Shiva--are easily parodied and sometimes used to evoke superstition and backwardness. They appear in the Beatles film Help!, accompanied by traditional Indian vocals and percussion, as the gestures of a murderous sect determined to sacrifice Ringo. The form's angular poses, with arms and legs akimbo, and the splayed fingers around the eyes are also familiar, appearing out of context everywhere from the Hope/Crosby road movies to the dancing scene in Pulp Fiction.

The form's music has likewise been appropriated and distorted. To the uninitiated Westerner at the performance by Chandralekha and Company, the dress and posture of the musicians (the Gundecha brothers, supplying extraordinary vocals and percussion) evoked first the Beatles in their Eastern phase and then the Concert for Bangladesh. Of course both are examples of the colonialist message that India's ancient civilization is in chronic, desperate need of Western patronage and help.

This baggage, rather than a useful background in the art form, accompanied me to Saturday night's performance of Chandralekha's evening-length Sharira--Fear and Desire. The choreographer is known as one of India's most radical, and this international premiere showed her interest in combining traditional forms with contemporary concerns. But what do the combinations mean? Is Chandralekha critiquing bharatanatyam tradition, the Western appropriation of that tradition, or something wholly other? The dancers might be up there doing the Indian equivalent of flipping the bird and I'd never know it. I could only respond to Sharira viscerally, and on those terms this four-movement piece succeeded for the first two movements and then collapsed of its own weight.

The choreographer introduced the piece with a reading (half obscured by a failing microphone) describing it as addressing "the ritualized erotic...sexuality and spirituality...the living body." But there was nothing obviously erotic about the first movement. Padmini Chettur, a superb dancer who holds the stage by herself for the first third of this 75-minute work, does a series of poses, mostly seated, and gradual movements reminiscent of yoga, though her hand gestures resemble those of traditional Indian dance. Chettur accomplishes the difficult task of making subtle change apparent without undermining it: she appears to be still--and then suddenly she's at the front of the stage and you don't know how she got there. She gives power to the smallest movements: at one point hands to the face seem caressing, while at another they're horrifying, suffocating. It's a bit like watching someone's movement meditation--rigorous, contemplative, and soothing--and a bit like the product of time-lapse photography, suspended somewhere between the plastic and the lively arts. If her solo is erotic, it's in the culture-specific sense that bound feet are, providing an image of female constraint and surrender. (But I may be imposing my own culture-specific reactions to restraint. The consensus at a past performance panel was that the solo was not only erotic but empowering to women.)

Chettur's solo is so absorbing that it's positively shocking when Shaji K. John bounds out to join her. The pair interact with such intensity in their duet, the core of the piece, that watching them feels simultaneously intrusive and irresistible. This section explains Chandralekha's reputation as a radical: whether John is diving between Chettur's spread legs or the two of them are moving rhythmically on the floor like linked swimmers, the erotic and transgressive content is perfectly clear. And yet the dancers never touch--they move their faces past each other until the absence of a kiss is palpable, and painful. Even when John is positioned between Chettur's legs in a pose that suggests both sex and birth, their bodies never meet. Yet they're close enough and enough in sync that after a while they stop looking like people at all and instead resemble a single flesh sculpture.

John comes from a martial arts tradition, kalarippayattu, quite distinct from Chettur's dance background, and unlike her he shows the effort he's making. Perhaps this is why his solo in the third section lets the audience down so hard. Previously silent movement is replaced by the occasional clap and stamp, but what begins as startling and refreshing turns stale. The evening's emotional/spiritual charge, sustained through Chettur's serene self-presentation and their erotic encounter, simply evaporates, leaving him to posture and her to watch--trying not to flinch as he dives for her crotch for the umpteenth time.

While the music for the final movement is the fastest paced and most exciting of the evening, the dancing comes to a virtual standstill. Throughout the piece the paces of the music and dancing deliberately diverge, but at this point the divergence stops feeling artful and starts feeling ludicrous. Everyone in the audience wanted to dance to that music, so why wouldn't the dancers? Similarly, the subtlety of the first two movements and of the dancers' interactions here degenerated into stasis. This may account for the audience's noticeable pause before applauding.

The evening left me feeling educated but not enlivened, as though I'd done something that was good for me. Many people leave dance concerts of all kinds, I believe, with feelings like these--a healthy reminder that it's exhausting to spend an evening translating a foreign language. The challenge is to make the audience more fluent in the many languages of dance, and Columbia's bharatanatyam conference was a worthy effort to do so.

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