SUPERB ARTISTRY AND PRECISION
SAMARPANA – An offering through dance
DIRECTOR, PRODUCER,CHOREOGRAPHER & PROJECT MANAGER: Vivek Kinra
ASSISTANT CHOREOGRAPHER: Gayatri Balagurunathan
Verse: selected from GITA GOVINDAM of BHAKTA JAYADEVA
MUSIC COMPOSITION by Kadayanallur Shri Venkataraman & Shri T K Padmanabhan
JATHI COMPOSITIION by Shri K Gopinath
at Whitireia Performance Centre, 25-27 Vivian Street, Wellington
From 31 Jul 2015 to 2 Aug 2015
Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 2 Aug 2015
Vivek Kinra’s production of Samarpana is a series of six dance items in the classical Indian style of Bharata-Natyam. His dance company, Mudra, features graduates and advanced students from his academy in central Wellington. This is not a professional company of dancers in the sense of a full-time occupation. The great majority of its members are students at university finishing degrees in a wide variety of areas such as Psychology, Early Childhood Education, Commerce and Law. All of which are heading them away from the insecurities of a life in performance dance (if such a thing were even possible here in NZ when it comes to classical Indian dance), towards potentially secure careers of significant worth in other disciplines. Nevertheless, the technical skills and performance expertise of Mudra’s core company are of an extremely high standard, verging on fully professional.
As a European with no in-depth knowledge of either Bharata-Natyam or Hindu culture, how am I to review such a performance? The uninitiated are helped in a number of ways. The programme contains descriptions for each of the dance items of the stories and entities from the pantheon of Hindu gods, demons and others of which they’re about. There are references, for instance, to ‘six faced Lord Subrahmanya who rides a peacock’; Balarama the plowman who ‘brings the river Yamuna close to the village with the power of his plow’; and to Lord Krishna/Mahavishnu who, in one of his many incarnations as a ‘Boar’, ‘lifts the whole earth on the tip of his tusk, like a speck of dust caught on the crescent moon’.
Further assistance comes from the artistic director Vivek Kinra himself, who, in spite of the fact that he has now retired from dancing, graces us between each item with a short display – almost in the form of a small lecture demonstration to a voice over – where he performs key gestural motifs from the choreography we are about to see. These are mini-versions of the longer works. This guides our attention to the way the movement communicates the characters, plots and actions that are being depicted, as well as sung about in the accompanying music.
At the interval, I realise I need more help. The storylines are fantastical and highly bizarre. Outside the religious circle and faith of Hindu practitioners, how might others engage with these ancient scriptural narratives? An Indian gentleman kindly explains some of the symbolism of the Hindu myths to me. Going back 5000 years, he says they are ‘pre-scientific’ ways of describing and predicting the evolutionary genesis of humankind using the only means at their disposal – imaginative imagery and personification. In the dance dramas we are watching, for instance, there is a chronology at play, spanning aeons, with references to such things as primeval oceans, hunter-gathering, agriculture and the advancement of civilisation.
My eyes are slightly altered in the second half. Bharata-Natyam’s roots are in the Hindu temples of Southern India. Although I am sitting in a theatre with my usual superficial expectations of entertainment and displays of highly skilled performing, I experience a deepening of appreciation. Assisted by burning incense in the make-shift shrine at the side of the stage, temple and theatre combine as I become more mindful of other more traditional uses of dance to safe-guard, illustrate and pass-on elaborate forms of understanding and knowledge. Suddenly, this small, gorgeously costumed troupe of dancing women are empowered as the latest incarnations of generations. There is much more than just dance knowledge being kept alive here in the ‘software’ of these young-looking, earth-stomping, gestural guardians with ankle-bells.
As to the performers themselves, my critical eye as a contemporary dance practitioner takes in a lot of information. I look for the dancer that pulls my eye, either for their performance skill and presence, or, conversely, because they’re perhaps out of time. I make comparisons between their different faces and expressions, gauging what I sense might be going on internally. I look for precision and imprecision of movement. I ask myself: who am I to look at and why?
As a group, this troupe is well-drilled and each person at some point has a moment where they stand out and shine as an individual artist. There are hours and hours of learning and training on display. They all have good levels of authority and confidence on stage, some a little bit more than others. Those with more are able to conceal technique behind expression, which is particularly noticeable with the speedier movements of the eyes. The stand-out performers go even further. For instance, I am particularly drawn to Kaajal Patel in her solo work who finds the right balance between expressive energy and restraint. This is a mark of maturity in a performer. It’s great to feel that a dancer has even more to give, that there’s more in reserve.
A distinct feature of Bharata-Natyam is that it mixes highly stylised movement with equal amounts of emotional expression and role-playing. The performers act as much as they dance. Extreme changes of mood and character in any one dancer can be very swift. In terms of a stand-out person in this regard, Varshini Suresh has to be mentioned. Her extremely expressive eyes and face and virtuosic dancing is both impressive and compelling. In contrast to her colleague, Kaajal, Varshini leaves nothing in reserve, yet is able to produce unexpected surprises and subtleties of emotion.
A balance that is interesting for me to observe is that between solo and ensemble work. These performers are required to do both, yet the demands of each are very different. In spite of faultless timing and spatial skills, there are moments when individuals, as performers, forget they are in ensemble, and stand out too much. Alternatively, there are others who, when they are in ensemble, forget that they must still have a mature individuality of presence. These last reflections lead me to comment on the balance that a performance such as this strikes when hovering between the worlds of professional and recreational dance. At the core of Mudra are standards equal to the highest in the profession. At the other end, there is the requirement to satisfy the concert demands of a teaching academy.
I can’t help but speculate on what the outcomes might be like if the more professionally-ready members of the group had a separate opportunity for even more progressive and refined levels of performance growth and experience.
Vivek Kinra has received copious amounts of praise and recognition for his choreography, his teaching and his contribution as a dance artist to the cultural diversity and makeup of our community. I must now humbly add my own to his extensive list of admirers. Here is a master-craftsman in the fields of performance and teaching who, through the passionate discipline and superb example of his students, is nurturing and ensuring the ongoing health and exquisite flowering of his chosen dance form, Bharata-Natyam.