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The first time I saw Shantala Shivalingappa, she was dancing with a horse. It was 1996, and Chimère, an equestrian spectacle by Bartarbas for his company, Zingaro, had come to a tent in Battery Park. Amid all the amazing and beautiful transactions between humans and animals, this one stood out. Shivalingappa and a golden horse with neither bridle nor saddle played with each other around a shallow pool set in sand. In her short, simple dress, teasing this large, free creature, she might have been taken for a wild, innately graceful child.

The next time I saw her, she was performing in Pina Bausch’s Nefés at BAM in 2006. Then I read that she had played Ophelia in Peter Brooks’s production of Hamlet.Clearly a woman of daring and intelligence, as well as one of those people who light up a stage. When I saw her dancing in India’s Kuchipudi style in New York’s 2007 Fall for Dance Festival, I understood a little better where her power and versatility were formed. Although raised in Paris, she is the daughter of Bharata Natyam dancer Savitry Nair and studied that form from the age of six. At 17, in India, she became a pupil of Vempati Chinna Satyam, a master of Kuchipudi.

Shantala Shivalingappa in a section of her program "Shiva Ganga"
Rodrigo Cesar
Shantala Shivalingappa in a section of her program "Shiva Ganga"
Pichet Klunchun (foreground) and Porramet Maneerat in Klunchun’s "Chui Chai"
Kristi Pitsch
Pichet Klunchun (foreground) and Porramet Maneerat in Klunchun’s "Chui Chai"

Details

Pichet Klunchun and Dancers
Jacobís Pillow, Becket, Massachusetts
413-243-0745
July 14 through 18

Pichet Klunchun and Dancers
Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College
899 Tenth Avenue
212-721-6500
July 24 and 25

Shantala Shivalingappa
Jacobís Pillow
July 7 through 11

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Kuchipudi—like two other classical Indian styles, Bharata Natyam and Odissi—encompasses both pure dancing and dances that relate a story or a poem (usually drawn from the Sanskrit epics). The dancer must execute passages of intricate rhythmic stamping, accompanied by flashing, wheeling arm gestures, as well as the nuanced miming, the poses, and the hand gestures that speak to us: “she decks herself with a garland,” “I dreamt of Krishna,” “why have you come?. . .” As in those other two forms, Kuchipudi’s basic stance is turned out with the knees bent. The style has a distinctive look, however, which this Jacob’s Pillow program of Shivalingappa’s makes vivid.

Years ago, Indrani, the Indian dance performer-scholar, in the course of a lecture-demonstration in the main Jacob’s Pillow studio, introduced two male dancers—one an expert in Kuchipudi, the other in Odissi. Most of us had never heard those words before, and the men’s performing was a revelation. In telling of Kuchipudi’s origin as a temple dance-drama form for young boys in an eponymous village in the state of Andrah Pradesh, Indrani remarked on a boisterousness that clings to the steps, a certain naivete in the way the dancer approaches a female role. For all its precision, Kuchipudi has a certain swing to it.

Shivalingappa’s guru, Satyam, is credited with revitalizing Kuchipudi as a secular form and adapting it to female performers. But while the program that Shivalingappa presented at Jacob’s Pillow in 2008 emphasized the gentle, feminine aspect (lasya) of the style, this time, she ventures further into the strong (or tandava) element. With stunning results. She enters the stage of the Duke Studio Theater, just as her fine instrumentalists—Navin Iyer (flute), Ramakrishnan Neelamani and M.S. Sukhi (percussion)—are winding down an overture and singer Jetty Ramesh raises his voice in a prayer song to Vani, goddess of the arts. The dancer is beautiful—a small, slender figure in bright silks and golden jewelry, her feet and fingertips outlined in red, bells around her ankles. Posed or moving slowly she looks like a carved temple deity, but as she slips from this prayer into her guru’s Surya Stuthi, an homage to the sun god, and then into Ananda Nartana Ganapati, choreographed by Kishore Mosalikanti, we see a bolder side to her. She bounds into the air, swings one leg across the other in a kick, she walks—even struts; sometimes she drops into a broad stance, feet wide apart. Often she pounces on a gesture or step, then sinks beguilingly into it or lets it melt into something else.

In the second of these, she dances to a song celebrating the god Ganesha as a dancer. Simple at first, the piece’s steps get more complex; the rhythms tumble out, then stop abruptly. Ganesha, the son of Shiva and Parvati, has the head of an elephant, and sometimes Shivalingappa lets one fluid arm swing about her like a trunk. Rasalilla, her own choreography, emphasizes the feminine. The accompanying song tells a familiar Indian tale. The milkmaids (gopis) await Lord Krishna; among them, sighing for him, is his beloved, Radha (one of Krishna’s charming traits is that he can multiply himself and so dance with them all). Shivalingappa sways sensuously to the flute (Krishna’s favored instrument); her fingers tremble. We see her eager, playful; briefly, her hands milk a cow. She tries to catch one (or someone), has a little temper outburst. The restlessness, the anticipation, the joy—the dancer captures them all.

The music is, of course, a vital part of the performance—not just accompanying, but signaling, emphasizing, and illuminating. In Talamelam, a virtuosic rhythmic display, Mridangam player Neelamani opens with a few slow beats on his drum, chanting rhythmic syllables; Sukhi abandons his cymbals for another drum. Iyer joins, then Ramesh. One musician delivers a rhythm and waits for another to copy it. The competition builds into terrific counterpoint, and Shivalingappa, wearing a dark blue and maroon costume and no headdress, arrives to complicate things further. To rapturous applause, she concludes with a Kuchipudi specialty: a dance performed standing on the rim of a brass plate, making it turn and slide over the floor by the action of leg and hip muscles.

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