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Creator and destroyer, in dance: Lakshmi Vishwanathan.

Dance to the Drums Again
By Mae G. Banner

Lakshmi Vishwanathan Dancers
Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., July 24

Bharatha Natyam, a 2,000- year-old dance tradition from South India, demands total involvement from the dancer. Lakshmi Vishwanathan, a dancer, choreographer, teacher, and ambassador of this art, performed a program of spiritual and secular dances last week at Jacob’s Pillow.

She was joined by three dancers and three musicians, including vocalist Bama Visveswaran, whose low notes and vibrato added color to an already vivid form. The dancers use every part of their bodies in codified movements that signify changing emotions, elements of nature or human and godly characters. Henna-painted feet perform heel and toe rhythms to the sound of the drums. Finely cut hand and finger gestures evoke flying birds or unfolding flowers. The head, the neck, even the eyes move in formal ways to tell a story or evoke a mood.

The dancers, working with parallel feet instead of European ballet turnout, tend to be rooted to a central spot, which makes their sudden, wide-open diagonal lunges all the more exciting. From this still center, their arms radiate like the multiple arms of Shiva, the creator and destroyer, now sowing seed, now wielding a broadsword.

These contrasting aspects of the deity were made shiveringly clear in Devi—the Goddess, a solo danced by Lakshmi. She led our eyes to one side of her body or the other as she changed instantly from the gentle, loving aspect of the goddess to the fierce, thrusting swordswoman. She seemed to combine exaggerated female and maleness in one body, portraying her womanly side when the vocalist sang, and her masculine power when Srikanth, the only male dancer in the group, sang.

Devi was an arresting theater piece that, as Lakshmi explained in her introduction, embodied the unending cycle of life. In contrast, Vana Varnana, a light-hearted nature dance, was presented as a gift to the many children in the audience (who were at the Pillow for the annual Community Day).

In Vana Varnana, two women dancers, Roja Kanna and Prathima, were children wandering in an Indian rainforest. They see—and become—peacocks, leaping deer, fluttering birds, and even a huge elephant. A tiger appears and frightens them, but a hunter, danced by Srikanth, chases the tiger away without releasing an arrow from his bow.

Lakshmi, a generation older than her dancers, spoke to introduce each dance, telling how the dancers in the opening Alarippu would perform a kinetic primer of all the bodily movements and stances of Bharata Natyam that we would recognize in the dances to come.

In the early 20th century, Bharatha Natyam was divorced from the temple and became a theatrical concert form. Still, the dances recount tales of gods and humans. Often, as in Greek myths, the gods behave in quite human ways, making and breaking erotic alliances with humans, or taking sides in human conflicts. It’s easy to read these actions and emotions, even if one is not familiar with the old stories.

When a dancer was not part of one of the nine brief works, she or he would sit on the floor and join the musicians at stage right, adding to the vocal accompaniment and playing a small, hand-held cymbal with a metal wand. The musicians, Mayuram Shankar, drums; and Pasumarthi Venkata Ramanan, flute, played each dance in a different raga, each scale signifying an emotion, a time of day, a season, and more, in this highly codified art.

The traditional saris were in saturated colors of violet, silver-green, red, yellow, or black, with metallic threads to further dazzle the eye. Richly colored silken flags were hung as a backdrop.

The longevity of Bharata Natyam and its transition from a temple dance performed by religious devotees to a secular form studied by today’s Indian youth gives me pause. What are the social conditions that support the persistence of such an exacting tradition? What are the social institutions needed to pass on the dance from one generation to the next? Will ballet or clog dancing be performed a thousand years from now? Is there something Americans can learn from these teacher/dancers?

Shall We Dance

New York City Ballet
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 20-24

Saturday night at SPAC was like a Boston Pops Fourth of July concert. There was plenty of brass, eye-popping color and a crowd of more than 3,000 that filled the amphitheater and the lawn.

The fireworks were in the dancing. The New York City Ballet closed out their 39th season at SPAC with one hit after another, crowning the evening with a rip-roaring Stars and Stripes (1958) set to marches of John Philip Sousa, adapted and orchestrated by Hershy Kay. NYCB’s British-born music director, Andrea Quinn, conducted the ballet orchestra with spirit, and, yes, the audience couldn’t resist clapping the beat in the grand finale.

All of Balanchine’s pop ballets adhere to strict classical conventions. Stars and Stripes, a ballet in five campaigns, maintains the ranks of corps dancers, soloists, and a central duet by principal dancers, complete with virtuosic solo variations. The leaps, turns, spins and sky-high kicks all are part of the traditional ballet vocabulary. But, in Balanchine’s hands, it’s all new, and it’s all rousing fun.

Everything about Stars and Stripes was razor-sharp. Jennifer Tinsley led a dozen high-steppers in magenta tutus and red-cockaded hats in the first campaign. Tinsley twirled her shiny baton as she showed off her cadets. Ellen Bar blew her bugle to lead the second campaign, the corps dressed in teal and maroon. They did Floradora dance-hall kicks and fast prances with their arms raised straight up.

A dozen men in dress uniform with knife-edged creases to their pants and red stripes down the legs went through their paces, led by an exuberant Adam Hendrickson. They returned for the finale, all regiments on stage, for a memorable send-off.

Stars and Stripes was the perfect closer for this celebratory season. Yet, the evening’s other dances—Balanchine’s salute to Gershwin’s show tunes in Who Cares? and Jerome Robbins’ tip of the top hat to Fred Astaire in I’m Old Fashioned—also have the choreographic power and sweep to close a show.

Robbins always kept one foot in showbiz, the other in ballet. We saw Robbins’ Fancy Free (1944), the first ballet he ever made, danced by two equally terrific casts. Three sailors in spanking white uniforms hit the Big Apple on shore leave and go on the prowl for women.

We know the men’s characters by their body language and by Leonard Bernstein’s distinctive themes. On Friday night, Daniel Ulbricht danced the cocky one, all high jumps and wide splits. He’s a human rocket, exploding to Bernstein’s circusy bounce.

Seth Orza is the country kid, sweet, romantic and untried by city life. He does a lovely duet with Rachel Rutherford. Then, in the dance challenge scene, Orza does smooth pirouettes and slides to string music, and ends lying on the floor, chin in hand, gazing up at Rutherford.

Amar Ramasar wins the challenge in a debut performance as the rhumba guy, working smooth and punchy magic with his hips. He’s everywhere, from the floor to the countertop to the barstool, in exciting sync with the beat.

Balanchine choreographed Broadway shows early in his career. The crowd-pleasers Who Cares? (1970) and I’m Old Fashioned (1983), two jazz-steeped evocations of New York, opened the week. In Who Cares? Nilas Martins was a Big Apple Apollo who partnered three bright muses: Miranda Weese in shell pink was his true love; Sofiane Sylve in sky blue was the pert girl next door; and red-haired Ashley Bouder in wine was the woman you’d like to seduce.

They danced duets and solos before a 1920s cartoon-style Manhattan skyline at midnight (the skyscrapers could be tugboats with gold-lit windows) designed by Jo Mielzner. Bouder kicked up some syncopated sass in “Stairway to Paradise,” while Sylve did a smooth set of pirouettes on one toe in “My One and Only,” exiting in a slow passage of fanlike fouettes.

I’m Old Fashioned is dreamy, a suite of duets, all wine and roses, to variations on the tune by Jerome Kern. Maria Kowroski in a coral evening gown is glamour personified, doing long slow turns in duets with Jared Angle. Her legs seem to extend from one end of the stage to the other. She could fly if she wanted to. Jenifer Ringer and Nikolaj Hubbe did an amusing bump variation, and then a beautiful adagio duet that unreeled like silk off a spool.

The finale, with nine corps couples in black taffeta and tuxes is a demonstration of relativity. The stage seems to be sliding back and forth before your eyes as the dancers echo the moves of Astaire and Rita Hayworth, projected on a big screen behind them. It’s a lovely, dizzying feeling to sit back and watch this elegant multitude dance the night away.

—Mae G. Banner


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