[Dance Review] Cross-Cultural Epic

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Vinayaka

Bhaskar’s Art Academy

16 October 2016

SOTA Drama Theatre

Before the start of the show, an announcement informs the audience that we are about to watch the third iteration of Vinayaka by Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA)—Vinayaka 3.0, so to speak.

The choice of the computing term raises an interesting question: With technology being able to create a very realistic Lord Ganesha on screen, why would anyone—especially someone who is not from the culture—want to watch a rendition of how Lord Ganesha got his elephant head told through Bharatanaytam and Javanese dance?

The physical presence of the body.

In fact, the more advanced technology becomes, the more treasured physical virtuosity is. And the physical control and expressiveness displayed by dancers from BAA and Sasana Budaya Art Troupe (SBAT) is absolutely exquisite.

Put together on stage, both dances play off each other really well. Bharatanatyam’s stamps of physical vigour or quiet strength are a counterpoint to the courtly elegance in the fluid tip-toeing or shuffling of the feet in Javanese dance. Choreographers Meenakshy Bhaskar (BAA) and Santi Dwisaputri (SBAT) bring this to the fore through the interweaving formations as each troupe seems to frame the other at one point or another, especially as the attendants to Parvati (played by Dwisaputri herself).

While dance often suggests movement, stillness is the most difficult to achieve especially when you have to get the depiction of the gods just right. In that respect, the stage presences of Senthun Bhima Nugraha (Shiva) and Santi Dwisputri (Parvati) are unmistakeable.  The former has to keep his body upright to accommodate his costume—which includes two artificial hands that form a mudra—while adopting two soft gestures with his own hands. Yet, when he moves across the stage, he exudes a masculine and regal presence.

While Dwisputri’s gentle and graceful gestures suggest the pure and feminine Parvati, all it takes is for her to turn to the back for the world to be destroyed in sheer anger due to the death of her son, Ganesha.  Her versatility in expressing gracefulness, sorrow, and rage is a sight to behold.

Sarenniya Ramathas and Shruthilaya Ramachandran as Ganesha do not pale in comparison.

Ramathas, as Ganesha before he was beheaded, treats us with a dance of youthful vigour. When Ganesha battles Shiva’s Pancha Ganas to prevent his father from intruding on his mother, Ramathas departs slightly from the traditional Bharatanatyam movements. Her facial expressions and strong movement vocabulary makes the battle exciting to watch. This is complemented by the strong and well-coördinated performances by the dancers portraying the Pancha Ganas (Miroshini Kannathasan, Nishalini Lakchimanathas, Priyadarshini Nagarajah, Tanuja Seran, and Usha Anbalagan).

Ramachandran, as the resurrected Ganesha with the elephant head, is the answer to the question posed at the start of the review. With a gentle swaying of her hand and a very slight movement of  her body, she intimates a lively image of Ganesha and his swaying trunk, as the mind vividly fills in the rest of the details.

The visual intricacies will be hollow without the music from BAA’s own musicians and Singa Nglras Gamelan Ensemble. The contrast between the musical forms mirrors the dances as well.

The carnatic music spans from the meditative to the rhythmic, while the various metals from the gamelan instruments enhance the rhythms and provide a wholesome resonance. A sense of grandeur envelops the whole theatre at the start and end of the show, when both musical forms come together, as we see the gods take the central dais, and are surrounded by the various dancers to form an impressive iconography.

Given the skilfulness of the dancers and musicians, I wish they were more ambitious in their art-making. The sections with Javanese dance with gamelan music, and Bharatanatyam with carnatic music, are a little too clearly delineated. The moments when both art forms intertwine are too few and far between.

The main impetus of BAA’s Traditional Arts in the Region series is to showcase the shared heritage among the traditional dances of Southeast Asia. While the differences between the dances strongly highlight the main characteristics of the respective dances, it would be a wasted opportunity not to see what happens if a dance embodies certain techniques or movements from the other.

All the more reason to look forward to BAA’s next collaboration and, perhaps, Vinayaka 4.0.

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[Dance Review] Expressive Gratitude

Nah MA

Na Mah

Bhaskar’s Arts Academy

16 April 2016

Esplanade Theatre Studio

16 April 2016, 3pm & 7:30pm

Before every rehearsal or performance, Bharatanatyam dancers are required to perform the namaskar. It is a ritual which expresses gratitude to Mother Earth, the deities, and their gurus who have brought them to where they are.

If Na Mah is anything to go by, these people, spirits, and elements have done an excellent job with Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA).

In many ways, the repertoire on offer is an extensive namaskar. Deities such as Ganesha, Bhaskara, and Muruga are praised; the wonders of nature is an analogy of the nature of love; and the skill, precision, and presence on display testify to the wisdom and efficacy of the gurus.

In the course of this thanksgiving, the audience is reminded of how the body is a fantastic instrument for story-telling. The group numbers—especially Bhaskaraya and The Peacock’s Cue—are wonderful spectacles as the dancers come together to form distinct iconographies of the gods, or inject a certain energy in celebration of a deity’s divinity. This is achieved through the contrast between stillness and exuberant footwork. The slight variation in the way each dancer executes the gestures or facial expressions also present the multi-faceted nature of the deities.

That said, there are a couple of occasions when the dancers missed their marks by a hair’s breadth. But they are so minor that they hardly mar an otherwise beautiful performance.

The solo numbers prove that abhinaya (expressive elements) is a forte of BAA’s soloists. The exactness of the gestures, and the nuances of the facial expressions not only tell classic stories, such as Shakuntala searching for Dushyanta in Maaney, it also expounds on abstract concepts such as the nature of love in Vaanil Mukilodum.

The ability to portray an array of emotions, coupled with the different physicalities of the masculine, feminine, and animal within a split second indicates a high level of craftsmanship. From the feelings of joy and longing when one is in love, to seeing a series of flowers bloom with a mere flourish of the hands, it is impossible to take one’s eyes off the soloists.

It is important to note that the programme also includes two Kathak solos by Pallavi Sharma. While she brilliantly executes her steps in Shiv Stuti, the choreography does not bring out the enormity of Shiva’s cycle of nothingness to everythingness, and everythingness to nothingness. However, she is an absolute treat in And This is Love…. Sharma brings out the coy flirtation of lovers through motifs of looking and hiding, and slowly progresses into a series of spins which evokes the all-encompassing and thrilling feeling of love.

It would be remiss of me not to praise the musicians (Ampili Pillai, Arasakumari Nagaradjane, Ghanavenothan Retnam, TV Sajith, TK Arunkumar, S Harikrishnan, Imran Khan, Nasir Khan, Shakeel Ahmed Khan) for their artistry in enhancing the dances. From the meditative to the earthy rhythms of joy, the music is evocative, hypnotic, and potentially therapeutic.

It is unfortunate that we have no ritual of our own to thank the performers for the sacrifices that they have made. Perhaps, the best thing we can do is to show our continuous support and introduce more people to their work. And Bhaskar’s Arts Academy definitely deserves that.