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Poetry, Danced, Erasing Borders, Pace University, New York
By Apollinaire Scherr. September 2, 2015 6:02 pm

Both erotic and devotional, this performance of Indian dance lived up to its title
Aishwarya Balasubramanian in 'Poetry, Danced'

If not for Hinduism’s embrace of the erotic, there would be no Indian classical dance, whose central subject has always been love in all its shades — between the gods and towards the gods. In its second summer smorgasbord the reliably excellent Indo-American Arts Council offered intriguing updates to this ancient commingling of religious devotion and romance.

Inspired by an Odisha folk song, Aparupa Chatterjee focused on maternal love. She played both the rascally baby Krishna and the good mother whose patience and ingenuity he tests as she tries to coax the unflagging infant to sleep. Sanjukta Wagh translated into Indian terms a sexually spectacular street diva from Ntozake Shange’s iconic 1970s black feminist “choreopoem” for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. And mohiniyattam master Pallavi Krishnan presented a riveting saga of a bored courtesan relinquishing her decadent ways for righteous Lord Rama.

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This last piece could represent the trajectory of Indian classical dance itself: after the scolding puritanism of the British Raj, then the advent of ascetic modernism, the discipline emerged in the mid-20th century with its spirituality scrubbed clean. But that’s the point: the material in Poetry, Danced was so rich and so fully realised, with each solo commenting on every other, that we ended up with a vision of a whole history.

One constant, though, is the measure of virtuosity in this classical form. It lies in the performer’s capacity to shift both between characters and between extreme states of feeling. As a sculpture of fiery Shiva, bharata natyam practitioner Aishwarya Balasubramanian struck a pose with hands intricately splayed and face impassive. As the devotee who witnesses Shiva emanate from stone, however, she was all melting eyes and legs. Wagh’s regal bearing as Shange’s “passion flower of south-west Los Angeles” luring men from the street contrasted sharply with her startling evocation of erotic implosion in the bedroom.

A century after dance discovered abstraction, many choreographers have deemed the art too limited by wordlessness to do justice to story. Here, though, we were reminded that, without the burden of speech or exposition, characters and scenes can flicker to life in an instant: poetry danced.

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