Samakala, held recently in Bhubaneshwar, gave audiences a good glimpse of avant-garde moves, impressions on mythology and music by top talents

Odisha Government’s enthusiasm for classical dance festivals last year brought under its sponsorship umbrella Contemporary Dance in the form of the Samakala festival — a bold step considering the State has few artiste representatives in this dance category. In what is a learning process for audiences and other artistes, Samakala — mounted at Bhubaneswar’s Rabindra Mandap recently — had as curtain raiser the avant-garde choreographer Padmini Chettur presenting “Beautiful Thing — 2”. This highly committed artiste looks at movement mechanics in a way in which the body’s physicality becomes abstracted in the space/ body interaction. In the act, the incredible shifts and balances of weight made her movements three dimensional; arms like windmills going around slowly as the dancer moves, or stretched full length on her stomach slowly circling without bending the fully stretched arms and legs; or having fully bent body moving forward on fingers and toes like some pre-historic animal; the geometry of straight lines, diagonals, all revealing tremendous body control. M. Natesh’s excellent lighting, with powerful flashlights at the rear of the stage placed in a row, blinded out the audience at the end of each sequence. Moments later, the dancer in changed costume was silhouetted starting another movement. Too out-of-the-box in its individualistic, unadorned body-centering for this audience, that the odd signs of impatience did not turn into disquieting proportions and that the dancer gamely carried on, not allowing anything to dent her deeply meditative concentration, spoke highly of both the audience and the dancer.

Highly talented Kathak dancer Ashavari Majumdar in “Surpanakha” sought to highlight that with countless Ramayana versions in India and abroad, the demon who lusted after Ram and Lakshman, getting her nose cut is but one of the many manifestations of this sister of Ravan. The dancer began with great promise, the music in Jog, the ‘thata’ frozen moments built into a lehra refrain, and a tukra creation showing the nose of Surpanakha being chopped off, catching strong whiffs of this character. By the conclusion though, the overwhelming feeling was of confused presentation. Undoubtedly a dancer of ideas and talent, Ashavari needs direction in designing a work.

Uttara Asha Coorlawala’s talk on the second morning at the Museum Theatre, with a small gathering in attendance, was interesting, the fine visuals of her earlier work extremely informative.

Anita Ratnam’s “Sita”, with a layered interpretation depicting Sita’s refusal to seek the easy escape out of Lanka by riding on the shoulders of Hanuman, was a tame start to the recital. The next item though was evocative based on Muttuswamy Dikshitar’s “Meenakshi me mudam dehi” in Poorvikalyani, which so impressed Tagore that he created a lyric in the very same raga and ‘mettu’, but with words on ‘Basanti” in praise of Spring, for the Brahmosamajist Tagore saw divinity in Nature and not the fish-eyed Goddess Meenakshi. Superb recorded music alternating between lines of Muttuswamy’s composition and that of Tagore, the silken changeover never losing raga flow, saw the dance interpretation in the seated position, even while classical abhinaya in tone, very moving. By far the best of the evening was Avani inspired by Tagore’s epic poem, the choreography assisted by Canada’s Hariharan and Rex. Prithvi or Earth as both Mother Protector and Destroyer, like the cat giving birth and devouring the last kitten of its own litter. The throbbing music in two tracks, one a base flute and the other sharper, with edekka and drums and ragas like Hamsadhwani and Desh (concluding obeisance to Mother Earth), the lulling music contrasted with mocking sounds of laughter, all added so much to the performance.

The spectacle of four outsized devi puppets majestically moving down the aisle of the auditorium on to the stage, blessing the diminutive devotees in “Your Grace”, Astad Deboo’s creation, left the entire audience shell shocked with the grandeur and largeness of perspective. The huge puppets and the small men exuded a macro/micro view as nothing else could. And what music! The show started with raga Darbari rendered Dhrupad style with four dancers and Astad in one corner offering a very slow unfolding of the body in “Surrender”. After the red and black contrasting majesty of ‘Your Grace’, ‘Walking Tall’ based on Tagore’s “Ekla Chalo” seemed a comedown — too loud after the understated language of the earlier item. But seen as a metaphor revealing Astad’s own life, shunned by both classicist and modernist and forced to plough a lonely furrow to success, one understood the dance statement. The finale with Astad’s endless pirouetting in a Dervish like Sufi prayer in “Awakening” had its response with a standing ovation — no other artiste got. Astad’s working with youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds has yielded rich results, the disciples, all hard triers, constantly pushing their own boundaries.

Looking at the Ramayana through objects like the bow, sand (lakshman rekha ) and the sensuality of the Valkala Vastra or bark garment Sita is draped in, was “Dravya Kavya”, conceptualised by Navtej Johar and presented as a duet with a male partner. The Yoga /Bharatanatyam physical theatre vocabulary in body language, with excellent coordination between the dancers in ati vilambit movements, had soulful music in Elangovan’s melodiously soothing raga singing in Bauli, Ahir Bhairav, Neelambari, Senjurutti, Sindhu bhairavi,Yamuna Kalyani, etc. Sita (Navtej in the bark skirt) agonising over her plight was a memorable scene.

Find Asian Modern Dance rather than rummaging in “the dustbins of Modern dance in the west”, said Ramli Ibrahim whose “Transfigurations” did just that though “L’Pres Midi d’un Faune” inspired by Nijinsky’s over hundred-year-old historic work — which Ramli revived, the revisiting having Harenthiran as the Faun was wonderfully evocative though certainly not Asian. Using excellently recorded traditional musical pieces rendered with an orchestral accompaniment of various instruments, the dance language inspired by Odissi, Bharatanatyam and modern dance fashioned group work deliberately attempting to entertain the average uninitiated viewer. Many senior dancers having left Sutra, Ramli’s new line-up while disciplined is yet to reach the old class. The Mohanam thillana, sung by Guru Adyar K. Lakshman, made for a great conclusion. The last costume needed some changes though.