New York is always throwing us surprises. Who could have envisioned that a group of women with diverse cultural roots and an impressive variety of careers outside dance would band together to present concerts in the ancient Indian style of Odissi? Believe it. And believe that the six members of Trinayan Collective and Bani Ray, their teacher, perform with a technical power, passion, and devotion that does their guru, Shri Durga Charan Ranbir, proud. Their dedication and discipline are in themselves moving.
Neel: The Eternal Blue, their program’s title, is manifested in Krishna, the divine blue-skinned charmer; Shiva, whose throat turned blue when he gulped the poisons thrown up in the churning of the oceans; and the goddess Kali, the ferocious and fecund blue-black metamorphosis of Shiva’s beloved wife, Sati. The women begin by praising Kali in a series of slowly coalescing tableaux. Ray—of all the dancers the one with the most flexible waist, the one who sinks most deeply into Odissi’s traditional S curves—performs the love-besotted nayika who slips into the forest for a tryst with Krishna, now searching, now shy but playful. Later, Rajika Puri, a mentor to the Collective and the program’s vibrant narrator, sings, speaks, and enacts the plight of Krishna’s best-beloved, Radha, who—because of her lord’s amorous proclivities—typically spends hours tormented with jealousy, rages at him, and then, often as not, sends a friend to pacify him. The yearning of the human soul for rapturous union with the divine resonates in words the 13th-century Sanskrit poet Jayadeva puts into Radha’s mouth as she welcomes Krishna: “Help me pick up the pieces of myself so I can lose myself once more.”
In Ashta Shambu, Alicia and Tallis Pascal—strong, beautiful women—re-create choreography by Ranbir and the late guru Deba Prasad Das that refers in formal patterns and encounters to certain exploits of Shiva. The love god Kama disturbing his meditation; Kama crouched and shivering, while Shiva incinerates him, perhaps with a burning arrow; the bestowal of an invincible sword on Arjuna; Shiva in his famous poses—standing atop the dwarf of ignorance, embracing his wife. The roles emerge from passages of dancing as fluidly as the river waters ripple in the filmed image by Nandi Sikand that ushers in the dance. In Surya Ashtaka, a riveting solo by Ranbir performed by Ray to taped music by Ram Hari Das, dark blue changes to gold. Ray dances the sun god Surya—his healing power, his vital force, the chariot he drives across the sky.
The production at Joyce Soho is modest: taped music, simple but effective lighting by Alberto Edwin Bohl, the spare use of film. The Collective women—the Pascals, Sikand, Kakoli Mukherjee, Sylvia Lim, and Kron Vollmer—wear black leotards under their saris rather than traditional cholis (perhaps to avoid complete costume changes and keep the program moving).
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam do not present an embodied dancing god, much less an erotic one. The “Song of Songs” (how did it ever get into the Old Testament?) is the Western world’s only parable of divine love comparable to that of Krishna and Radha. The Hindu gods both share our passions and transcend them; one of the marvels of Indian dance, in addition to the stamping feet, spiraling torsos, precise hands, and mobile faces, is the fact that the woman performer can hold the male god within her and dance his steps.
The island of Okinawa, once a mighty mercantile center with cultural and political ties to both China and Japan (which annexed it in 1879), drew on theater forms from both countries as well as maintaining aspects of its own artistic traditions. Its court dances are slow, elegant, and spare; the lift of a foot, the turn of a head, the unfolding of a fan suspend time. While following the rhythms of sanshin (a three-stringed instrument), drum, flute, koto, and bowed lute played by musicians seated onstage, a performer creates her own rhythm of lifting and sinking slightly with every small, soft step—as if the waves that surround this floating country had permeated the dance style.
Formality and restraint govern the court dances. The woman (Michiko Kamiya) performing Nufa-Bushi might be an Okinawan version of the Indian nayika, stealing away to meet a lover—perhaps, in this case, a forbidden one. Wearing a sumptuous red and gold kimono (no obi to bind her in), she bears a huge red flower. But as the dance speeds up (comparatively speaking) and becomes a little less restrained, she turns the flower into a hat, enlarging the delicate motions of her head. The refinement required of court ladies is humorously highlighted in Shundo; two “beautiful” women going through their serene paces are coarsely imitated by two “ugly” women, who, like Cinderella’s stepsisters, get steps wrong, argue, and weep in frustration.
In an excerpt from the play Manzai Tekiuchi, women play boys who have disguised themselves as street performers in the process of avenging their father. Lifting their feet high as they dance, they wield sticks and also small puppet-heads trailing scarves and representing a horse and a dragon. A similar theme shapes an excerpt from the 1719 play Nido Tekiuchi, in which the gender mutations are complex and a bit confusing. Atsuko Tamaki and Kamiya play brothers aged 12 and 13 whose mother tells them they are now old enough to slay the ambitious lord who had their father killed. Secreting knives, they disguise themselves as dancers in order to infiltrate the picnic the villainous Amaoe (the master performer Masanori Sesoko) is having with his three attendants (all played by men). In this production, the boys disguise themselves as dancing girls. In a 1981 presentation of the scene at the Asia Society, they were dancing boys, and the program translation of the text included such sighs of pleasure from the evil aesthete Amaoe as “Boys so beautiful we mistake them for flowers.” Hmm. Is there a “correct” text? (The translation in this company’s program refers to the dancers only as “children.”)
The disparity between these two productions, whatever it may say about artistic decisions and translations, doesn’t much influence the performing. The “boys” speak in high voices, often patterned as three or four syllables on one note and then a slide down to a lower one, and dance with refinement as they pour more and more sake for their rapt onstage audience. As they close in on the reeling Amaoe, their stance widens to tell us that the women playing boys playing girls are now simply women playing boys. Very beautifully.