Back in June, Emmanuelle Phuon’s Khmeropédies I and II honored the classical dance of Cambodia, while exploring how the Cambodian dancers she worked with could expand upon their traditions. Pichet Klunchun had a similar mission in creating Chui Chai with dancers from his native Thailand, but his approach is much more indirect, as his group’s performances in Jacob’s Pillow’s Doris Duke Studio Theater revealed (New Yorkers can see Chui Chai on July 24 and 25, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival).
Klunchun himself trained in khon, a masked dance-drama form with connections to martial arts, although the four women who enter slowly in brocaded costumes look like court dancers. Their tall golden headdresses resemble the temple steeples shown in a projected black-and-white photo of old Bangkok. They lift each foot high and set it down with soft care; their wrists make little circles, highlighting their uncannily arched-back fingers. They remain kneeling while a story is enacted, its details told in supertitles, with the sounds of the taped music—nasal wind instruments, drums, vocals, something like a wooden xylophone—enhancing dramatic points.
The story is a Thai cousin to India’s Ramayana. Rama is bringing an army to regain his kidnapped bride, Sita. The demon-king kidnapper is very worried. Idea! He’ll get his niece to transform herself into Sita, play dead, and float down the river. Rama will be too grief-stricken to fight. But the girl has never seen Sita. The scene ends with her agreeing and going to meet the captive.
We don’t see elaborate pantomimes that express anxiety, determination, confusion. Instead, the traditional choreography gives us physical attitudes and rhythms that express those feelings in very refined ways. (I remember that when Klunchun and French choreographer Jérôme Bel performed Bel’s wonderful talking-dancing duet, Pichet Klunchun and Myself, at Dance Theater Workshop a while back, Bel had a hard time distinguishing between the Thai characters Pichet portrayed; the differences between them were too subtle for him.)
The villain of Chui Chai (Porramet Maneerat) wears a fierce red mask and glittering red-and-green suit, with red pompons topping the little wings that arch up from his shoulders. Most of his moves are slow and measured, with occasional bursts of speed (small, smooth running steps) or sudden stops—say to lunge and point a finger toward the direction of Rama’s army. Showing his worry, he shifts back and forth between one seated pose on a platform to its opposite. Sometimes he takes a step or pose and executes a few little bounces to settle into it. He paces majestically, claps his hands to summon his niece, Benyakai (Kornkarn Rungsawang), and leans toward her in an implacable lunge, while she, with a docile, white-masked face, kneels and gently circles her hands to show her dismay and uneasiness.
The most contemporary aspect of the second part of the fascinating Chui Chai is its soundtrack. Against a background of city-streets traffic, passersby are asked questions like, “Do you know Sita?” and “What would be Sita’s occupation if she were alive today?” (“Model” and “exotic dancer” are some of the answers to the second; giggling girls suggest “selling papaya salad” and “motorcycle taxi driver.”) The transition from the traditional drama is smooth yet surprising. The four golden women begin looping their ball-bearing run around the stage, prior to exiting. Suddenly, Pichet appears at the end of their line, but he’s wearing black pants and no shirt. When the compliant niece approaches him and they stand face to face, the two begin slowly weaving their flexible hands together. But this is not exactly Benyakai becoming Sita; it’s Klunchun asserting his intimate entanglement with tradition and its struggle to acknowledge the modern world.
He dances alone, then, meditatively, gazing back at his uplifted foot as if pondering his history. He’s a beautiful man—supple yet reserved, miraculously powerful in softness. As the others begin to reenter slowly, they’ve discarded some of their traditional attire. One woman wears shorts with her glittering coat, another has taken off her headdress. The demon and another masked dancer (Noppadon Bundit—perhaps a royal servant?) hold their masks under one arm. A woman, not seen before (Julaluck Eakwattanapun), is dressed in shorts and a yellow tank top. As the others move ceremoniously through Asako Miura’s glowing light, she moves in a more contemporary way—stretching her arms and legs further into space.
For the most part, Klunchun sits and watches them, one hand cocked on top of his head like a crown, or he walks on smooth tiptoe around the perimeter of the space. But when they join hands in a line facing us, and struggle—pulling in various directions, risking losing their balance—he joins them. In the end, they all face upstage, looking at another projected photo. It must be the same city, seen today. If the old temples are still there, they’re hidden by steely skyscrapers, with inverted funnels on top. Almost everyone exits, but Klunchun is kneeling in Benyakai’s place, and “her” uncle is entering slowly. What must be transformed? What must remain? Beautifully put questions, for which there are no unambiguous answers.
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.
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.
Now she’s ready to begin her new three-part Shiva Ganga (co-choreographed with Satyam). The river Ganga is withholding her water; Shiva must be persuaded to catch the force of the flow in his matted locks—lest it destroy the earth with its force—and release it gradually. The dance shows us Bhaghiratha, who has been asked to make the request to Shiva; Shiva; and Ganga. Or rather, Shivalingappa portrays these characters for us.
As Bhaghiratha, she meditates, expresses his fear, makes a slow acquiescent obeisance, and ends spinning faster and faster, godstruck. As Shiva, she strikes his traditional pose, one leg lifted, one hand pointing up, the other down. She walks majestically. But Shiva is not pleased. His lunges get deeper, his leap higher, his rhythms faster, his glances fierce; in the end, he bows his shoulders to accept the load of water on his head. Ganga is quiet at first, eventually complying out of her love for Shiva. Shivalingappa stands in a corner, rippling her arms and hands; she ventures out with a chain of little quivering steps and the jumps of a gazelle, but as the flute goes crazy, she flutters her hands and drops into a circle of amazing turns, now kneeling, now squatting. You can believe the powerful waters descending to bless the earth. As Shivalingappa’s dancing blesses the theater and all of us in it.