and destroyer, in dance: Lakshmi Vishwanathan.
to the Drums Again
Mae G. Banner
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.
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
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
New York City Ballet
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 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
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.
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.
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.