India, Illuminating and Inspiringby Ryan Wenzel
“Sounds of India,”
Curated by Mark Morris
White Light Festival, Lincoln Center
October 25 – November 6, 2016
The Natya Shastra, an ancient Sanskrit treatise by the sage Bharata, argues that while music, dance, and theater may provide entertainment, this should not be their primary intent. Instead, they should aim to transport us into another reality, where we can reflect on spiritual and moral matters. The arts, according to Hindu tradition, hold great power and, like the most sacred texts, offer a path to moksha, or liberation of the soul.
There are those, myself among them, who descend on theaters night after night seeking the sublime: the rare moments when movement and music converge in ways that illuminate life, the world, and ourselves. Few New York choreographers are capable of, or even seem interested in, conjuring such magic. Mark Morris is one of them, so it was fitting that he would be tapped to curate “Sounds of India,” a two-week series of traditional South Indian dance and music, as well as anticipated revivals of his own works, at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. Scheduled serendipitously over the week bridging October and November, these absorbing performances provided welcome relief from the mounting anxiety surrounding the general election; one month later, the images still linger, providing some comfort in the aftermath.
Morris has long been fascinated by the arts of India. In a public conversation with the Bharatanatayam dancer and choreographer Lakshmi Vishwanathan, held before the start of “Sounds of India,” Morris reminisced about his first visit to India in 1981, when on tour as a dancer with Laura Dean’s company. In Delhi, while attending a performance of Kathak, a north Indian style of dance, he smugly congratulated himself on being able to follow the rhythms of the music. “Then, all of a sudden, it went way over my head,” he recalled. “There’s no universal language of music—that’s bullshit.” Needless to say, Morris the choreographer was up for the challenge, and within three years had unveiled two works set to Carnatic music, both of which appeared in “Sounds of India,” bookended by two pieces with Western scores, Serenade and Pure Dance Items.
His friends of the Odissi ensemble Nrityagram are already well known to New York audiences. On this occasion, after a brief prayer to Jagannath, patron deity of the dance form, six dancers in jewel-toned saris, their ankles outfitted with bells, launch into Panchtaal Pallavi, a rousing exploration of Odissi’s abstract vocabulary. Kaleidoscopic patterns form and dissolve in a heartbeat. The shifting rhythms, defined by four onstage musicians, and perpetual entrances and exits of dancers keeps the eye darting from one corner to the next. (Sen, an excellent performer, deserves equal credit for her choreography.) This was dance at its most joyous, graceful, and enthralling.
Other works showed the narrative side of Odissi. In Aali, set to verses by the mystic Meera, Sen uses fluid gesture and exaggerated facial expressions to convey the poet’s longing for the god Krishna. Lalita Lavanga, a duet for Sen and Bijayini Satpathy about the love between Krishna and Radha, begins with Satpathy personifying a mountain breeze and a swarm of bumblebees. Watching this I wondered to what extent Morris had consciously borrowed this approach for his own choreography. In his works, such as L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, where dancers mimic birds, dogs, and trees, the literal and the poetic often merge just as miraculously.
Silliness abounds in the first revival on the Morris program, 1983’s “Tamil Film Songs in Stereo” Pas de Deux, yet the piece still reflects Morris’s remarkable musical sensitivity. In the music—a tape of which Morris claims to have purchased on the street in Singapore—a voice teacher scolds his student. Morris translates this into deadpan dance terms. Brian Lawson, sporting a thick moustache and a blue spandex bodysuit, plays the impatient dance instructor; Stacy Martorana, in pink, is his reluctant pupil. Their repartee matches that of the singers: as the female vocalist begins to crack in resignation, Martorana’s posture and energy deflate.
The program’s centerpiece, O Rangasayee, from 1984, could hardly be more different. Danced by Morris at its premiere and here by Dallas McMurray in its first-ever revival, the solo, to a raga of the same name by Sri Tyagaraja, astonished with its intensity and dynamic range. McMurray begins crouching in the dark. Over the twenty minutes that followed, he moved between statuesque poses—striking, but more grotesque than the idealized forms typically seen in Indian dance—and ecstatic bursts. A series of spiral leaps canvassing the stage culminates in the entire body swaying gently from side to side. Head wagging recurs throughout, punctuating other athletic feats.
The movement has an undeniably ascetic quality, underscored by the revealing white dhoti donned by McMurray. His physical struggle brought to mind Gloria, another excellent Morris dance from the 1980s, in which the dancers hobble and drag themselves across the floor to Vivaldi in search of salvation, but in O Rangasayee the battle with the self serves no larger theme. It exists on its own terms. The piece is more direct, more visceral, and more unnerving while remaining enigmatic. And although it matches its hypnotic score perfectly, it also looks improvised—likely because Morris’s choreography leaves the number of repeats in some sections up to the performer.
The outlier among the dance offerings of “Sounds of India” was not the Western choreographer’s fusion work, but the Kerala Kalamandalam Kathakali Troupe, which performed The Killing of Dussasana, a popular tale of battle and vengeance from the Mahabharata epic. Massive layered skirts obscured the actors’ forms; only their feet, hands, and faces, elaborately painted green and red, were visible. This was riveting pageantry, but the dialogue between music (a steady drone of percussion) and movement (elaborate hand gestures and stationary leaping and stomping) was unclear. It’s an ancient art, and a ceremonial art whose public functions aren’t perhaps best served in a small concert hall filled with the uninitiated, where it has qualities of a lecture-demonstration without the lecture.
Perhaps repeat viewings of Kathakali, which is very seldom seen in New York, would reveal its secrets. In his public talk, Morris, acknowledging that “Sounds of India” represented only a sliver of the Subcontinent’s diverse dance traditions, called the series “the beginning of the longest, most amazing conversation of all time.” I hope that conversation can continue.