Friends reunited: classical Indian dance with a contemporary feel

Discipline and formality are key to classical dance from the Indian subcontinent. But to the outsider, that discipline can be conveyed as a celebration of rhythm, space and the movement of the body; those dances can be expressive, elegant, or dramatic – often all three at the same time. And on 17 February The Arts Center at NYUAD is giving us the opportunity to experience one of the more innovative, exhilarating and contemporary examples of two collaborative classical dance companies.

Kandyan dance, regarded as the classical dance style of Sri Lanka, is muscular and dynamic. Traditionally performed only by male dancers, the technique focuses on powerful footwork, leaps and whirls.

By contrast, Odissi – one of the oldest of classical Indian dance forms – is performed mostly by women, and it includes more than 50 formalised body movements that result in a lyrical, complex, and often sensuous style.

“The two seem to complete each other almost as if they were always waiting to be married,” says Surupa Sen. She is artistic director, choreographer and principal dancer of the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble – and of Āhuti, the latest collaboration between Nrityagram Dance Ensemble’s Odissi and the Kandyan dance of the Chitrasena Dance Company.

“The Chitrasenas and Nrityagram have known each other for over 18 years now,” says Surupa Sen. The initial meeting was with Chitrasena and his wife Vajira, both noted Sri Lankan traditional dancers, choreographers and teachers; their daughter Upeka Chitrasena has continued the strong connection as the two groups continued to communicate and share their art.

That coalesced into a year-long participation, “living together and finding inroads into each other’s forms of art” as Ms Sen puts it.

“We have learnt deeply about each other’s dance, culture and countries and our common shared lineage of art in Asia through these productions. Today we are also close friends. And we hope to make such alliances throughout Asia and the world – to bring people together with the sharing of their art.

Saṃhāra was the first result. That collaborative piece premiered in Bangalore in 2012 and toured internationally to great success; a repeat in 2017/8 took the dance to London, Colombo and the States. “Each visit is a gift,” said the New York Times dance critic. “The interplay of styles is exciting and illuminating”.

In London, the Financial Times review commended the choreography: “Surupa Sen brilliantly met the challenge of classical dance – how it might speak in the language of now without being wrenched from its foundation”.

Now comes Āhuti, their second joint work – “because the first time was so joyful and fruitful”. The dance is fluid and precise, choreographed again by Surupa Sen and performed to a group of five musicians playing ragas. Chitrasena’s Kandyan form leans towards the muscular, vertical, and athletic; the movements in Nrityagram’s Odissi are more sinuous, giving it a rare lyricism that marks it as noticeably different from other classical Indian dances”. Both styles are rooted in ancient religious rituals, though – the classical dance forms of the Indian subcontinent have always been considered a way to devote yourself to God through art – and both feature percussive music. The resulting piece is a reciprocation of differing styles, shifting from one to the other.

This performance was filmed in September 2019 at Chowdiah Memorial Hall, Bangalore. It is being shown online by The Arts Center at NYUAD for one night only (17 February at 7.30pm) – and it really should not be missed.

The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble is one of the foremost exponents of Odissi, one of the 15 or more recognised styles of Indian classical dance. Odissi claims to be over 2,000 years old; many of the 108 basic dance units (karanas) mentioned in the Natya-shastra, an ancient Sanskrit treatise on the performing arts, can be found only in Odissi.

It derives from the Hindu temples in the state of Odisha in the east of India. Most of the gestures and movements (mudras) are inspired by the motifs on the temple walls.

The company refines its art in a village outside Bangalore dedicated to that purpose (Nrityagram means dance village). “I dream of building a community of dancers in a forsaken place amidst nature. A place where nothing exists, except dance,” wrote its founder Protima Gauri. “A place where you breathe, eat, sleep, dream, talk, imagine dance … A place where dancers drop negative qualities such as jealousy, small-mindedness, greed and malice to embrace their colleagues as sisters and support each other in their journey towards becoming dancers of merit.”

The 200-plus students are taught yoga, meditation, and martial arts along with Sanskrit and ancient dance scriptures. Choreographers, musicians, writers, and theatre practitioners from all over the world visit, to perform and conduct workshops and seminars in their area of practice.

Founded in 1943 by the creative genius Chitrasena, the Chitrasena Dance Company is recognised for exploring the traditional village dances of Sri Lanka, reviving and refining elements of an authentic dance language and taking it to audiences across the world.

Chitrasena was the first professional dance artiste in Sri Lanka, challenging the colonial mood of the 30s and 40s and pioneering a modern dance theatre based on traditional styles.

Since his death in 2005, the foundation he established to run a dance school (which now has 400 or so students) alongside the professional dance company is now managed by his wife Vajira and daughters Upeka and Anjalika.

These days the Chitrasena Dance Company sims to take on up to three international tours each year, with more informal performances for a limited local audience at the dance school premises. 

For over seven decades now the company has given performances from a rich repertoire of dance and drumming pieces, original ballets, and productions inspired both by ancient rituals and contemporary culture.

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