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An Enchanted Evening of Indian Dance Under a Turner Sky
Aug 16, 2017
Dimple Saikia performed in the Sattriya style on Tuesday as part of the Erasing Borders Festival of Indian Dance in Lower Manhattan.
Andrea Mohin / The New York Times

Tuesday was the 70th anniversary of India’s independence; it was also the day of Lord Krishna. But rain had fallen all afternoon in New York; things looked inauspicious for the outdoor Erasing Borders Festival of Indian Dance event that evening. But fate turned the program, set beside the harbor in Lower Manhattan, into enchantment — even sublimity.

Clouds lifted on the horizon; they joined light, water and sunset to create a background worthy of a Turner painting. And the diversity, color and vitality of Indian dance itself made the foreground spellbinding. An alchemical ingredient was the lighting, which subtly increased as daylight waned: fabric and jewelry gleamed as if they were phosphorescent.

Light, color, music, dance, ancient traditions reaching across the globe to this city — magic. Watching at the end of a stressful day, I kept thinking, “This is one of the great evenings of my life.”

The outdoor Erasing Borders event — part of the Battery Dance Company’s yearly outdoor festival — has been since its first year, 2008, one of the red-letter days in the New York dance calendar. Whether this anthology (presented by the Indo-American Arts Council) has taken place beside a skyscraper, under the shade of trees in Battery Park or beside New York Harbor, the juxtaposition of India and America has invariably proved sensational.

As always, the outdoor event was paired with an indoor one. This was Monday night at the Schimmel Center at Pace University. Here, too, the range of Indian dance was gorgeously evident. If we were given only a selection from India’s various classical genres, that would be marvel enough – but the Erasing Borders recipe also includes elements from the modern global Indian diaspora.

Monday’s event closed with Parul Shah’s display of contemporary Kathak, in which the virtuosically rhythmic turns of the traditional genre alternated with an entirely modern, often expressionist, use of the torso and limbs. Her solo, superbly married to live music by Trina Basu (violin), Jake Charley (cello) and Narendra Budhakar (tabla), became an internal dialogue about tradition and modernity, as well as a statement of the resilience of women.

Parul Shah danced a contemporary version of Kathak at the festival on Monday at the Schimmel Center at Pace University in Lower Manhattan.
Andrea Mohin / The New York Times

Tuesday’s revelations included Dimple Saikia’s exemplification of the Sattriya style. Her demonstration was charmingly communicative (how adorably she enacted the boy-god Krishna’s inability to refrain from stealing cow-milk), and with long, varied phrases she seamlessly joined mime gestures with dance steps. This was ideal advocacy for Sattriya, which derives from the northeastern Indian state of Assam. I’ve never been able to see enough good Sattriya to sense its potential; Ms. Saikia has made me a convert.

Viraja and Shyamjith Kiran, dancing the Bharatanatyam genre of their native Tamil Nadu, in southeastern India, made its rhythms and gestures vivid on both evenings. Facing across the harbor, they opened their arms with sculptural firmness toward the Statue of Liberty: a perfect Independence Day moment for us all.

Also dancing on both evenings was Kalanidhi Dance from Washington D.C. This superb company bases its style in Kuchipudi, the rich genre from Andhra Pradesh (just north of Tamil Nadu); it has constantly beautiful choreography by Anuradha Nehru and Chitra Kalyandurg. The developing harmonies of the all-female septet, “Why We Dance: Community,” with which it concluded Tuesday evening, to traditional music, were ravishing. Quite as marvelous was the company’s dance to music by Félicien David from the French 19th-century “Indian” opera “Lalla Rookh”: this included two picturesque tableaus that swayed, as if in the wind.

Members of Kalanidhi Dance from Washington D.C. performed as part of the Erasing Border’s program on Monday. The company bases its style on Kuchipudi.
Andrea Mohin / The New York Times

Many other moments stand out. Ashwini Ramaswamy (based in Bharatanatyam) fluttering a fanlike hand in a descending arc; the undulating perfect arcs of Sruthi Mohan’s torso and arms and the eloquent beauty of her changing facial expressions (in the genre of Mohiniyattam, from Kerala); the fantastically vigorous brio of Aakansha Maheshwari and Malini Taneja in Rajasthani folk dance.

It cannot be said too often that all other dancers can learn from watching the Indian forms: the power and subtlety of gesture, the focus of eyes, the complexity of phrase. Indian dance, though often addressing the divine and the formal, is also superlatively human. These were enriching, heartening, generous performances, movingly infused with the modesty that asserts humanity is only one part of the great order of things.


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