Monday, June 10, 2013

35th Anniversary Show Review


Natyananda, the Birmingham dance troupe founded by Sheila Rubin in 1978, celebrated its 35th anniversary Saturday with a stunning display of Bharatanatyam, the classical dance tradition that originated in South India 2,000 years ago.  Multi-armed deities, elaborate costumes and leggings, sculpturesque poses,  neck and eye movements, and a wide array of poignant and celebrative narratives unfolded in nine dances on the Bell Theatre stage at UAB. One of India's finest dancers – Venkatakrishnan Mahalingam (V.K. for short) – joined for two solo dances and two ensemble numbers, placing in sharp perspective the artistic and technical discipline Rubin has instilled in her 40 or so dancers.
To all but a few devotees of Indian culture, Natyananda has remained mostly under the radar for the better part of three decades. But the packed theater indicated that has changed. Indian families – mothers and daughters adorned in colorful saris – and Western patrons alike turned out.

Click to enlarge and read the dancer's  names!
Well-prepared program notes gave insight on each number, including the ragas and talas of the musical accompaniment. Additional verbal notes were presented between dances, an additional aid to the uninitiated. Tributes to Rubin were frequent and heartfelt, paying homage to one of Birmingham's artistic treasures.
A puja invocation, performed in front of a shrine, began the event with prayers, candles, flowers and incense. A lotus dance by the entire troupe followed, young dancers arching their backs in a circular formation indicating the open of a blossom, four taller dancers in the center reaching to the sky. Another ensemble number, “Ganapati Vandanam” centered on the elephant-headed, obstacle-removing deity, Ganesha, with a series of a still poses and ensemble movements.



Vindhya Bassetti,    Krishna Pulipaka,    Arushi Kotru,      Prasanna Bassetti
Nikki Karnam (back)  VK (center),  Smriti Krishnan  & Sheila Rubin                   
Photo by Deloye Burrell
V.K. took the stage for an abstract solo, “Jatiswaram.” Dressed in white with gold trim and wearing a gold necklace and waistband, he demonstrated the essence of Bharatanatyam, executing the mudras (hand positions) and limb extensions with impeccable precision, boldly pouncing on rhythmic accents. “Sankara Srigiri” was more narrative, V.K. entering the realm of Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, with angular wrist and hand movements and ankle bells.
Rubin, who studied in the 1970s at the same school as V.K. in Chennai, India, revealed her virtuosity in “Rupana Dzuchi,” an homage to Lord Shiva. While Rubin possesses the physicality to carry out this difficult dance, it was the emotion revealed in her facial gestures that drew attention. Within a short time span, she expressed sorrow, despair and elation, empathy, cheerfulness and mourning. She was, to paraphrase cultural scholar Joseph Campbell, a woman with a thousand faces, each convincingly realized.
Our Program!
One of Rubin's prize graduates, Smriti Krishnan, danced solo in “Magu Duchi,” a tearful story about a young woman promised in marriage but in love with Lord Krishna. Her distant gazes, looks of fright and classic poses of Krishna playing a flute revealed her torn emotions, but most impressive was her ability to tell the story by moving from character to character.
The high point of the concert came with V.K.'s choreography of “Thillana,” a tale of romantic rivalry with two women –  Krishnan and recent Natyananda graduate, Neha Udayakumar – vying for the attention of Krishna, portrayed by V.K. Most striking were each dancer's individuality within the rigid structure of Bharatanatyam, and the Birmingham dancers' ability to meld seamlessly with one of India's best. It is testimony not only to the dancers, but to their teacher.


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