in Marin County
October 9, 2005
(The article first appeared on 'Ballet.co' and is reproduced here with permission.)
San Anselmo is a leafy-sheltered bedroom community in Marin County; it occasionally has its own flood warnings, but otherwise is a charming mix of hillside and flat land homes, with the services related to family living. It also is the site of San Francisco Theological Seminary, which moved to its 30 acre site in 1892. The Seminary, training individuals for Presbyterian church service, had the remarkable foresight to include on its grounds an intimate Julia Morgan-designed Marin Community Playhouse, erected in 1925.
The Playhouse has hosted Helena Henderson's Sons of Art Series, I believe some Anna Halprin as well as June Watanabe productions, so the presence of Odissi Vilas: Sacred Dance of India on September 10 was far from anomalous. It is an ideal Western-style ambience for Indian classical dance intimacy if its audience capacity (seating under 300) is small. Hangings of colorful Pipli applique ware and Orissi ikat fabrics, a healthy mixture of Indians, Western devotees and a more usual audience provided a receptive evening for this sensual, apparently langorous, yet technically demanding dance form. The recorded music, credited to the late Pandit Bhubaneshwar Mishra, lent its eloquent, emotionally penetrating background, establishing instantly that Odissi belongs to the realm of the immediate forever, despite the eternal evanescence of the performance.
Odissi is visually langorous because of its serpentine walk, sensual because of the tribhanga or three angled body posture and demanding because the dancer must maintain demi-plie position during performance, executing pirouettes and finishing in demi-plie and in the tribhanga posture. The tribhanga alternates with a square posture, called the chouk, akin to the standard position of Kathakali; none of it is a piece of cake, particularly when the tempi accelerates to double or triple time.
Odissi also could serve as an eloquent alternative for ballet dancers starved for highly emotional interpretations; the dancer is permitted, within the limits of the tala and lyrics, wide interpretive latitude and freedom to improvise. Myrta Barvi, a Teatro Colon-trained Argentine ballet dancer, did exactly that.
Parampara, or Three Generations, comprised Shrimati Jhelum Paranjape, initial teacher of Shri Vishnu Tattva Das, Das himself and four of his senior Odissi students dancing a traditional Odissi concert, choreographed by the late Kelucharan Mohapatra. Mangalacharan, the invocatory dance to Lord Ganesha was performed by Vishnu Tattva Das and followed by Pallavi, a nritta, pure dance form with Das and Jhelum Paranjape. Paranjape then executed two nritya or expressive dances prior to intermission. Barbara Framm, Shefali Shah, Nafeesa Mahmood and Devon Nunos appeared paired in separate nritta numbers before joining forces for a striking Dasavatar, finishing the concert with Moksha. Here Das appeared as the central dancer. Barbara Framm provided clear introductions before each piece despite being a bit winded after her own execution, and Paranjape illustrated the abhinaya for her two dances.
Vishnu Tattva Das is tall, dark hair framing a squarish face, his height reminding one of Uday Shankar, but Das' technical command surpasses the Indian modern dance pioneer's. Clearly enjoying dancing, Das' height and arms accentuates Odissi's sculptural qualities; his mudras and positions benefit from strong, tapering fingers and movements filling the music with remarkable kinetic phrasing. Watching him is unalloyed pleasure and delight.
Paranjape, a pint-sized contrast to her handsome student, takes on the task of fulfilling the expectation feminine Indian dancers need to be not just alluring but flirtatious. Their pas de deux framed each well, rhythmic bells not missing a beat. Her nritya dances depicted a young maiden and the mature Radha and their relationship with Lord Krishna, highly charged in imagery, dalliance and nudity included. Emotional extravagance is given free rein within the musical structure and tempo; the usual improvisation of a line of poetry or lyrics demonstrating the range and depth of a dancer's artistry. Paranjape's nuanced abhinaya was extremely clear, the lyrics, the story, the mood obviously embedded in her muscle memory.
The four students presented an interesting proposition in both Batu and Pallavi; two Western women with two of Indian background and their differing movement dynamics. Framm and Nunos exhibited visual awareness of form and space where Shah and Mahmood provided a more instinctual physicality, Mahmood tending to exaggerate her positions. Shah, so small I mistook her for an early adolescent, personified the bright, wise-eyed look of a minx, knowing more than telling. Framm's prior training in Bharata Natyam under the Kunhiramans enabled her to portray Narasimha in Dasavatar with wonderful effect. Overall, the quartet reflected admirable teaching and their own devoted application.
When Das joined his students for the concluding Moksha it was again obvious his phrasing is uniquely his own. The quintet was wonderfully attractive, and one hopes Odissi Vilas is launched on an auspicious performing journey.