Flowers of the Desert

How many spins does it take to move the world?

You can’t just put a village on the stage. Adapting folk dances to the concert stage inevitably requires changes, like adjusting patterns to the frontal perspective of a proscenium theater and then finding ways to make the audience feel somehow part of a community. Colors of Rajasthan: Music and Dance of the Desert, a World Music Institute offering featuring Gulabi Sapera & Party, does very little overt wooing. The musicians (except for Bhawroo Khan Langa, the jovial khartal player, who almost levitates when he wields his clappers) play their drums, harmonium, and wind instruments with businesslike skill. The brightly garbed dancers enter, do what they came to do, and exit (and that’s really all they have to do to enthrall us).

The music of the Langas, desert-dwellers in the North Indian state of Rajasthan, is vibrant and bracing, full of the melismas we associate with other Indian styles, but less caressing. Ramakishnan Nagarchi plays a riveting solo on two small, tipped kettledrums, one mellow, one sharp-voiced. The dancers—all members of Gulabi Sapera’s family, several of them her offspring—perform with a forthright ease. Six women of the troupe form parallel lines or circles to show us the basic steps of the region’s folk dances. In their red, pink, and orange clothes, they resemble desert blooms when they spin and their long, full skirts bell out. They spin a lot—in place and traveling in a circle. In many ways, their style resembles those of North Africa and the Middle East. Accenting the rhythms with one softly stamping foot, they arch into backbends, twist their hips rapidly, and sway their shoulders—their arms casually sinuous, their wrists mobile, their hands flicking from closed to open.

As the company’s star, Gulabi Sapera is presumably the one who selects and arranges the regional dances and choreographs the ones with narrative content. In a Banjara dance, Dinesh Kumar (Gulabi’s son) and Rahki Poonan (her daughter) play a courting couple. Rather, he courts her, and she alternates between encouraging and evading him, except when they dance the same twisting, springy, stamping steps. Here “performance” comes into play. Kumar, a skinny, endearingly enthusiastic young man, shows off by arching backward until his head touches the ground and revolving in that position while playing clappers he’s snagged from the musicians. When she leaves, he shrugs at us, grinning, and explodes into a few more exciting moves he has up his sleeve. In a trio related to the festival of Holi, he and Raju Nath try to catch Poonan, who repeatedly lures them and then slips past them, maybe knocking Nath’s yellow hat off and smacking Kumar as she goes.

The charismatic Gulabi (extravagantly praised by ones of the musicians at the curtain call as the “Queen of India”) has crafted her own numbers, using traditional themes and steps. In a dance about a peacock, she performs with an immense quiver of feathers on her back, spreading them with her hands or letting them trail behind her. She prowls, quivering and pecking, and smiling at the audience with an overtness that seems to belie the male bird’s lament that singer Sukander Khan is supposedly voicing. I found her “Desert Rose dance” much more entrancing. To the sounds of wooden double flute, jaw harp, drum, and singing, she moves almost introspectively, her feet treading and hips swaying with supple strength, her gestures feathering the air.

The Saperas are a migrant community of snake charmers, and she saves the “Kalbeliya dance” that acknowledges this until last. As I remember, this is the only dance in which hand gestures, briefly, seem to mean something. After all the women (including a little daughter), wearing gorgeous black and silver costumes, have sung together, and each has spun faster and faster, spiralling her torso, Gulabi, alone onstage, performs a major trick. Dropping to the floor, she arches back to pick up one foot by the toe and lifts it behind her until it almost touches the back of her head. Then, after a few little grimaces to tease us with the difficulty of what she’s about to do, she starts twisting and ducking under that grasp, encircling herself. She may not look exactly like a snake but she creates a startling metaphor for coiling that, outside of a theater setting, ought to work some pretty potent magic.

 
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