Preethi Athreya's stunning performance Sweet Sorrow left the audience shaken.

Everyone has read the sombre lines which Anna Karenina begins with, but it was Preethi Athreya who led me to delve into an unrelenting gulf of unhappiness. Can a dance form show us the privacy of grief that gnaws away inside? I did not think it could till I saw Preethi Athreya's slow measured steps which began like any other human movement, but soon became remote, self-absorbed, lost within the depths of herself and pain.

Special experience

No person escapes grief in life, and when we do experience it, it is a private pain, incommunicable to friends or family who hover around with sympathy. They know, and we know, our friends can never enter the depths of our special sorrow, for every tragic experience is unique, though others may suffer something similar. Literature can lead us towards the centre of such pain, for the words we read become our own, we transmute their meaning into something we have experienced, and so can music.

But I never thought an expressive art form like dance, even experimental contemporary forms, can descend to such inner depths. I am accustomed to the bold sanctifying of space in Bharatanatyam, to the exaltation of the body's perfection by the Bolshoi, to ballet's modulations by modern choreographers like Balanchine, and even to Maurice Bejart's introduction of spirituality into contemporary themes. But all these filled space with movement and led one out of oneself, none led me deep inside into someone else's sorrow.

Time slows

Preethi Athreya did exactly that with space voided of meaning, with a tight body lost in itself, movements that were severely contained, enclosed within an invisible matrix of pain, time slowed to the timbre of grief and longing. A figure, perhaps her figure, dances in silhouette on a large screen asynchronously, like feelings disjointed by loss. An empty stage, black like her thoughts, and, yes, a single chair, something to hold on to, to anchor her as grief mounts. Sounds escape like uncontrollable complexes surfacing from the unconscious. Private grief, demanding no audience, careless of any watcher, lost in itself, on the edge.

I am not sure whether I was relieved when the staging was over, but I know I was shaken, in touch with parts of my life I had tried to push away.

Thank you, Preethi Athreya.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012