Lakshmi Vishwanathan Dancers and Musicians
Lakshmi Vishwanathan Dancers and Musicians
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
Doris Duke Studio Theatre
July 22-25, 2004

by Seth Rogovoy

(BECKET, Mass., July 23, 2004) – The Lakshmi Vishwanathan Dancers and Musicians redefined classical dance or ballet for audiences at Jacob’s Pillow this weekend. Too often the Eurocentric mindset thinks that classical dance is all tutus and plies and jetes and (ironically) arabesques. But there are myriad dance traditions that are worthy of the term “classical,” and with a lot more Indians in the world than French, Russians, Europeans or North Americans, they certainly deserve a seat or two at the table of classical dance.

Named after the group’s choreographer, the company, from Madras in the south of India, derives its style from the bharatanatyam tradition of temple dance. But in the hands of this small but mighty ensemble, these dances aren’t merely ritual showpieces. The dancers and musicians invest their entire personalities and beings into the performance, so that every simple gesture of the arm, foot or hand, indeed, every wink of the raised eyebrow, becomes a signifier in a fully-realized multimedia performance full of gesture, color and sound.

The program began with “Alarippu,” a piece that established the basic grammar and vocabulary of the dances to come. Movements were clearly defined, down to steps, turns of arms and hands, and even movement of fingers, and the aforementioned raised eyebrows. The next dance, “Kauttuvam,” was based on a ritual that sanctified the space – two thousand years ago the temple, today, the dance stage, with full-body movements that were cleanly isolated into yoga-like postures.

A viewer quickly marvels at how different the choices available to these dancers were. For one, they rarely if ever touch each other, much less lift or twirl. They don’t run or leap. Solidly rooted to the ground with flat feet, they mostly take small, loud steps and occupy new space with sculptural weight.

This was nowhere more apparent than as in “Jathiswaram,” a trio dance in which the dancers related to each other somewhat by gesture but mostly by implication through unison formations that were about abstraction and translation of the music into movement – the gestural equivalents of the modes of the vocal ragas and the tabla-like rhythms performed in accompaniment by the trio of live musicians.

Much like that raga music, which is built on near-endlessly repeated patterns whose shapes and variety emerge over time (and in this case from the Carnatic tradition), so did the shape of the dances of Lakshmi Vishwanathan Dancers and Musicians emerge over time to reveal themselves as the stunningly colorful product of highly disciplined and creative devotees.

[Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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