Savitha Sastry, guru of Sadhana Dance Academy in San Jose, CA and Navia Natarajan, an independent luminary to watch out for; both students of A. Lakshman of Channai, sparked the beginnings of the underground movement in Bharatanatyam on Saturday June 13, 2009 at the Leigh High School in San Jose. I say “underground” as an achievement we all should laud. A debut underground performance is characterized by superlative talent, an experimental approach, limited audience due to lack of publicity, and lack of sponsors. This recital had all these.
It was a pleasure to see these sinewy, evenly matched dancers on stage; they seemed to calibrate the stage into ethereal latitudes and longitudes. The first two pieces were traditional, the Mallari and Shankara Sri Giri; superbly executed, some or all of it had to be original choreography. Such flawless dancing induces one to fully immerse oneself into the pieces, the very many nuances were brought to life. Savitha and Navia broke through the pressure of symmetry sometimes, (I’m hoping intentionally,)- they would juxtapose instead of mirror-imaging their poses, making for an interesting effect. The other neat thing they tried was staggering their nritta, like syncopation in music.
The music for the third piece was cleverly edited, the pieces themselves were intelligently chosen. It was a study in contrast, not just because of the subject matter; but also because Savitha and Navia have contrasting styles. Savitha is a minimalist, she likes to say as little as possible while using the bharatanatyam vocabulary in a frugal manner. She’s like the mystery woman and one would like to see a less austere/ reserved side of her. Navia, on the other hand, is an expressionist and ventures to the far-reaches of the same vocabulary. Savitha’s virahotkhandita nayika showed very little, but it brought out the other woman “tease” very well. Navia’s khandita nayika felt deeply, showed effusively and brought out the man’s “debauchery” well.
The performance unraveled in the first piece after the break–“Sanjana’s love for the Sun God” had a lot of potential, the piece though, was muddled by either bad story-boarding, or mis-paced voiceover. A strong beginning showing the lovers and subsequent separation was sorely missed. The timeline for Sanjana’s yearning, and dance with the Sun God was confusing–the dance in tandem between Savitha and Navia was interesting, but again seemed out of line with the voice-over; we were supposed to be seeing Chaya, Sanjana’s living shadow at some point. The tandem dancing would’ve made for great real vs. shadow depiction, but was it the lovers, after the supposed separation? Chinmayi, Savitha’s student formed an unexplained middle-woman at the start, and 5 minutes into the item made a strange run from stage left to right… was she the wind? What was her role? The bar was raised so high in the first half, one could almost hear it crashing down here. What happened in this piece will remain a mystery. And the whole thing with the white cloth needed more context, why was it shown in the beginning? (The voice-over explained after a time-lag that it was Sanjana, wandering about as a mythical beast.)
Next came Chinmayi, who held her own when dancing in the line-up as the other two accomplished dancers. Though, it seemed like her piece was a hasty addition to the program, especially since there was no mention of her on the flyer. Her “Glimpses of Krishna” needed some reigning in at points; like with Putana’s pain/confusion when she realizes Krishna’s latched on to kill–it was overdone. It was not also in keeping with the spirit of the program. The MC had explained that there was no requirement for us to be knowledgeable rasikas for the second half, but then there was this traditional piece!
The recital redeemed itself in the last piece; which was experimental, novel in its story, and arresting in its portrayal. The two ordinary women played by Savitha and Navia, discovering that they are not alone in their wish for deliverance albeit for a temporary period of time was portrayed well. The non bharatanatyam vocabulary suited the story well, the two lithe dancers executed the free-flow rhythms well. Watching this made the memory of Sanjana’s story even more of a mystery- The choreographers paid so much attention to detail for this piece and not the other one?
What they should’ve done was create the entire second half around the Sanjana story but with this stylistically different approach. The red salwar khameezes, free-format dancing, white cloth indicative of the lost love–all of it would’ve fit very well in the experimental format. They could’ve dispensed with the filler traditional piece, and the second half would’ve been as enrapturing as the first one.
All in all though, one wishes Chinmayi well, and to see Savitha and Navia, together and as soloists again and again. However, a note to any further attempts at experimentation–do do a private peer level/ ordinary folk comprising friends/ family preview first! The simple feedback one receives at such informal previews goes a long way in tightening any performance. Also, a printed program lineup at the door is a must; even in place of the refreshments (it was a nice touch, but unnecessary). Without a program in hand, the audience doesn’t know what to expect, the MC’s script was no help at times. There should also be an announcement before the last piece that it is the culminating item–the event ended quite abruptly on Saturday.
In any case, one hopes that this is a more affirmative start to BharataNatyam Underground–more mature dancers and gurus taking on more experimentation.
Lehkikaa is a Bay Area dance and drama critic.