Fall for Dance 2023 – Programs 4 and 5
New York City Center
New York, New York
October 6 and 7, 2023
Program 4: Suite from A Choreographic Offering (Limon Dance Company), Interlinked (Birmingham Royal Ballet), The Center Will Not Hold (Ephrat Asherie & Michelle Dorrance)
Program 5: Sitaharan (Bijayini Satpathy), Songs of the Wayfarer (Germain Louvet & Hugo Marchand / Paris Opera Ballet), Gira (Grupo Corpo)
Programs 4 and 5 of Fall for Dance 2023 included two of the most provocative dances that the series has presented: Interlinked in Program 4, and Gira, the concluding piece in Program 5. Because these two dances are so interesting – and I suspect some might say controversial – I’ll consider them first, and then return to the programs in performance order. [I discussed Programs 1 and 2 in an earlier review; I was unable to see Program3.] But I must note up front that the most exciting and revelatory dance in any of the FFD programs I saw this year was the opening piece of Program5: Bijayini Satpathy’s performance of Sitaharan.
Interlinked was the center piece of Program 4, and, as it turned out, its centerpiece. It doesn’t say anything exactly new, but it puts things together, including its choreographer’s message, in a more interesting and convincing package than anything I’ve previously seen. And it’s a feather in the cap of both Birmingham Royal Ballet, under the leadership of Artistic Director Carlos Acosta, and choreographer Juliano Nunes.
I’ve seen several dances choreographed by Nunes previously. The first was at a Youth America Grand Prix Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow program in April, 2019 at the Koch Theater in a piece titled Nothing Left, in which he (then with the Royal Ballet of Flanders) and Boston Ballet’s Derek Dunn appeared, and was immediately impressed by Nunes’s choreography (as well as its execution by by both dancers).
Everything I’ve seen Nunes choreograph since then – including Two Sides Of (a duet for the Royal Ballet’s Lauren Cuthberson and Marcelino Sambé that I saw during The Joyce Theater’s 2019 Dance Festival), and Connection, a 2019 dance performed by Philadelphia Ballet at a 2021 Fall for Dance program, as well as those pieces (or parts thereof) that I’ve seen on social media – cemented my initial opinion of Nunes’s choreographic capability. And in addition to being skillfully crafted and relatively original, these dances were exciting to watch.
Unlike other celebrated contemporary choreographers, Nunes hasn’t (yet) created anything amounting to a magnum opus, but give him time.
With Interlinked, which was created in 2022 and was here having its U.S. premiere, Nunes examines a broader subject than I’ve seen in his previous pieces while continuing to take choreographic risks. But that subject may not be what it initially appears to be.
Men dancing women’s roles or assaying choreography intended to be danced by a ballerina (e.g., pointe work) is nothing new, nor is seeing men costumed in tutus. More often than not (at least in my viewing experience) these are in dances that to one extent or another are humorous. [Matthew Bourne’s nearly all-make version of Swan Lake is sui generis.] But with Interlinked Nunes takes gender differences, or the perceived absence thereof, out from the realm of comedy and makes a serious statement about who can do what in a ballet. But I think his real target is audience expectations.
Nunes has his BRB male dancers assay step combinations and assume typical ballet roles that normally are considered to be the province of ballerinas, and to do so wearing “ballerina” costumes that are identical to those worn by the dance’s ballerinas (leotards with bodices, and skirts that bring to mind romantic ballet tutus). More significantly, he places this “gender neutrality” in the context of a ballet display that’s akin (though not identical) to Harald Lander’s Études, combined with a decidedly Romantic ballet slant (complete with allusions to Giselle), perhaps to emphasize that men can dance not just ballerina roles and steps, but a style that characteristically emphasizes the ballerina.
Into this wrapping Nunes packs a dance that not only accomplishes his purpose (it makes a statement), but also that’s genuinely entertaining.
The piece begins slowly, with the dancers as a group executing “simple” ballet steps and combinations, to music composed for the piece by Australian composer and pianist Luke Howard. Very slowly the dance progresses to more complex, but still rather elementary movement qualities, with the men executing the same steps as the women. I must admit that after awhile this elementary choreographic level begins to wear thin.
But at some point the dance loses these introductory exercises, and delves deeper – at first as in Études, but ultimately into a piece that’s far more complex than that. To Howard’s uncannily Romantic ballet-sounding score, dancers break into smaller groups that execute the increasing level of choreographic difficulty, then into small trios and duos as well as the occasional bravura solo. And the more complex the choreography became, the more unimportant it became that all were wearing tutus.
There were two components of the piece, each a duet, that particularly illustrate what Nunes is doing – as well as what he’s not doing. The first was performed by two men, one tall and African-American; another short and Asian (see below with respect to my description of the dancers), with, initially, the taller man dancing what characteristically would be a male role, and the shorter man dancing the female role, including the latter being partnered as if he were a ballerina. But things don’t remain fixed – as the duet progresses the gender aspect of their roles diminish in appearance and significance, their functions change and change back (i.e., at times they traded positions as to who was partnering whom), to the point where the two were “just” two dancers dancing together – which I suppose is part of Nunes’s point.
The second was a duet between two other dancers, one male (costumed as a ballerina) and the other female. This is a more “typical” ballet pas de deux, but it was of exceptional quality and execution, and was marked by soaring lifts and leg extensions that go on forever. So Nunes isn’t saying that heterosexual pairings are passe; his target is more limited.
Upon the dance’s conclusion the audience erupted, giving the group a well-deserved theater-wide standing ovation. And during these same post-performance bows the cast in its entirety singled out the Asian dancer alone, most likely recognizing his work here to have been as exceptional as it turned out to be.
Since I don’t consider dancers to be anonymous automatons, my preference is to identify participating dancers by name (certainly not by distinguishing color or features). But the program identifies the 17-dancer cast by rank rather than by their assignments, making such identifications at best difficult for someone who’s not previously seen the company. Consequently, I’ll provide a “best guess” as to the identity of the featured dancers based on company dancer photos on the BRB website, but this should be taken with a grain or two of salt. Tyrone Singleton appears to have danced the role of the taller man and Tzu-Chau Chou the shorter Asian man, both of whom are company Principals. Based on the same set of website photos, I think the second pas was danced by Singleton and Miki Mizutani, also a Principal. Another Principal, Lachlan Monaghan, excelled in every aspect of the piece in which he appeared, including powerfully executed solos. The remaining dancers (based on the program listing), each of whom merits recognition, were Principals Celine Gittens and Yaoqian Shang; First Soloists Yu Kurihara and Beatrice Parma; First Artists Gabriel Anderson, Reina Fuchigami, Sofia Linares, and Lucy Wayne; and Enrique Bejarano Vidal, Eric Pinto Cata, Matilde Rodriguez, Javier Rojas, and Shuailun Wu, all listed as Artists.
While Nunes breaks ground here and does so with pizazz, the question remains as to Interlinked’s ultimate significance. Seeing men dressed like ballerinas dancing ballerina steps and ballerina roles –, essentially denying the existence of gender differences – is a stunning statement. But that’s not what’s really happening in Interlinked, and may not be what Nunes was aiming for. Even after eliminating gender-based differences in costumes, roles, and steps, the fact is that there remains no doubt in Interlinked as to which dancers are which (at least outward) gender: gender differences don’t just disappear. Indeed, with his inclusion of certain stereotypical male solos executed brilliantly by male dancers (while wearing tutus), blurring or eliminating gender differences doesn’t appear to be what’s on Nunes’s radar screen. Either he’s making a statement about male dancers’ capabilities alone, which I don’t believe is the case at all, or his focus is on something else. That something else is the assertion that gender accoutrements in classical ballet, even ballet’s basic ingredients, are irrelevant, not that they don’t, or shouldn’t, exist.
This may make Interlinked less provocative than it initially appears to be, but it’s still a significant, and head-scratching, idea; and it’s encased in a dance that, on its own merits, communicates considerable skill and viewing enjoyment.
A similar observation applies to Gira, the closing piece in Program 5, which was performed by some 20 dancers from the Brazilian company, Grupo Carpo. Here too, the dancers all wear white, long, romantic-ballet-like ballerina skirts (long, but not appearing to relate to any particular dance style). But in Gira, they wear nothing else.
Like men executing ballerina steps and wearing tutus, partial nudity is nothing new – though to my knowledge it’s relatively rare, or non-existent, with respect to major ballet companies. Nor is Gira anything new. The dance premiered in 2017 in Sao Paolo and was presented at BAM in 2019 (I didn’t see that engagement). Regardless, I don’t think any performance I’ve seen flaunts it as Gira does. [I recall that at some point in a visit by the Royal Danish Ballet in the 1970s the company presented what was billed as a totally nude ballet, which was considered newsworthy by major print news outlets. If it actually happened (as opposed to being a way to generate publicity and sell tickets), it turned into a non-event that somehow I managed to miss.]
The piece requires some twenty dancers (based on the program listing): apparently evenly divided between genders. At first, I thought the women were wearing nude-colored tops, but after awhile it became clear, notwithstanding the dim lighting, that that was not the case.
While it’s possible that Gira is making a homogenized gender statement (as Interlinked initially appeared to be doing), Gira doesn’t do so with an ulterior motive, like demonstrating that certain ballet steps and styles are exclusively the province of one or another gender. Indeed, Gira has little that’s related to “dance” in general or “ballet” in particular. So the thought arises that this explosion of nudity, partial though it is, is being made for titillation purposes only. But although that’s a side impact and may have had some significant when it premiered in Sao Paolo in 2017, I think the dance is more preoccupied with making a choreographic as opposed to a sociological statement, whether wholly or in part gender-related.
The dance is choreographed by Rodrigo Pederneiras, described in the program’s company bio as Grupo Corpo’s house choreographer. The scenery and lighting were designed by Paolo Pederneiras, the company’s Artistic Director (aided with respect to lighting by Gabriel Pederneiras, who also acts as the performance’s stage manager). If nothing else, this inbreeding assures that Gira is as seamless as it is.
Gira‘s score was specially composed for it by Metá Metá which is described in Wikipedia as a Brazilian jazz band from São Paulo created in 2008 that’s “considered one of the most prestigious and representative groups of the recent Brazilian music scene.” The three-person band’s name means “three in one” in Yoruba (a group of ancient West-African cultures linked by a common language and belief system), and the trio typically reflects the diversity of Brazilian musical genres.
There’s no question that all those ingredients are accounted for in the pulsing, pounding, speed-driven score, matched pulse for pulse and pound for pound in the driven, lightning-fast choreography. While it certainly sounds “tribal,” a la “The Rite of Spring,” that’s not the sense I took away from the tenor of the music and the choreography. Rather, combined with the eager participation of the women in what might be seen by some as misogynistic choreography (I’ll get to that later), I heard and saw a celebration, more akin to a Dionysian celebration than of choosing a human sacrifice – think Balanchine’s Walpurgisnacht Ballet, or, even closer in frenzied sex-tinged celebration, to the Leonid Lavrosky version of Walpurgis Nacht that the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet presented in 2017.
Consistent with the music, the choreography is marked by group movement that thrusts the body forward and back within a second of time, repeatedly. And it never ends – the music and the movement to it go on and on and on in that same vein. After a bit, it begins to look repetitious despite the high velocity movement variety.
But, maybe a quarter of the way through, Gira (which is Portuguese for to turn, to rotate, or to spin – particularly apt descriptions for the choreography here), the music and movement grew into something mesmerizing, drawing the viewer in (at least this viewer) – not as would-be voyeurs, but as if being whipped into a reactive frenzy to match the visual frenzy on stage. In addition to the continuing thrusting forward and back movement, there were individual examples of dancers who would break from a group or enter the stage from its dimly lit perimeters and suddenly break into wild body and limb movement as if struck by lightning – or possessed. In this respect, one performer in particular, a blonde-haired young dancer, stood out. There are also examples, within the group context, of male/female dancer connections which are frenzied and mutually aggressive, and which include what I saw as a simulated sexual interaction within which both parties were actively engaged. In another context I’d consider this choreography to be misogynistic, but the women here appeared to be as actively involved as the men. As in Interlinked, I’d like to identify the “electrified” solo dancer as well as the referenced pair, but the program provides no such opportunity – although the dancers are not listed in rank or alphabetical order, the stage action moves so fast that determining who did what in what order remains essentially impossible. [The three-sided perimeter of the stage from which that unusual and dim stage lighting emerges is also lined with chairs on which dancers who are not actively performing rest, as well as individual “blanket”-like coverings within which the dancers wrap themselves while they wait to keep warm – and perhaps also to avoid being distractions.]
Although the program is silent as to what Pederneiras’s intent was (which here is particularly unfortunate), I understand from my research that it emanates from Umbanda religious practice, which evolved uniquely in Brazil as a blending of West African and Catholic spiritual practice. Given the nature of Pederneiras’s choreography and the imagery that I thought I saw, I decided to go down that rabbit hole. [And I apologize in advance for taking even longer time and space than I usually do to illustrate my point.]
An in-depth discussion of Umbanda is far beyond the boundaries of this review: it’s extremely complicated and multi-faceted – and I don’t pretend to be an expert in any of this – it’s the product of a summary of limited research outlets that rely on footnoted sources. So save your emails.
In gross generalizations, it arose in Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s and 30s, and relates to the relationship between the practitioner of Umbanda and spirits. In the 1960s and 70s, Umbanda was estimated to have had 10-20 million practitioners in Brazil alone.
Like Candomblé (a “related” practice which also blends several of the traditional religions of West Africa and Roman Catholicism), it’s derived from, related to, or affiliated with (any one, or all of them, depending on one’s source) Spiritism, a reincarnationist doctrine that arose in France in the mid-19th century. Spiritism, in turn, is predicated on the existence, manifestations, and teachings of spirits (and in the context of an afterlife and immortality of the soul, is compatible with Christianity). Some consider Umbanda (which emphasizes Spiritism more than Candomblé, which emphasizes its West African components) also compatible with and derived, at least in part, from Asian religions like Hinduism and Buddhism.
Umbanda has no central authority, is divided into two main groups (called White Umbanda (aka Pure or Clean Umbanda) and Afro-Brazilian Umbanda (aka Africanized Umbanda, which is closer to Candomblé), and is practiced in a variety of ways within different regions of the country.
Although Umbanda is monolithic, the concept of God is as a somewhat distant entity; rather, God works through powerful divine forces, spirits, occupying lower cosmic levels in something resembling a hierarchy. Those at the highest level are called orixás; considered to be intermediaries who are frequencies of spiritual energy, vibrations, or forces of energy. The orixás have parallel spirits in the underworld, called Exú. And each of these have “sub-groups” that aren’t as highly evolved, and which may include human spirits that have entered the after-life.
Being possessed by a certain (or perhaps more than one) spirit is routine at certain Umbanda gatherings via their emissaries (spirits at a lower level), who work through mediums who facilitate the process. Umbandists typically hold ceremonies – rituals – called sessões (sessions) several times a week, the purpose of which is to invoke spirits to come to earth, where they may take possession of the mediums and thus offer spiritual consultations to the congregation. At times songs are sung and dances are danced. A dance to celebrate the orixás is called “gira” – which just happens to be this dance’s title. [The above summary is distilled from footnoted references in a length article in Wikipedia.]
Mediums and others engaged in Umbandist rituals typically wear white clothing. At such gatherings mediums (and maybe practitioners) wear skirts almost identical to those worn in Gira (though I only saw them paired with white tops, and with the men wearing white pants; if there’s a topless component, it wasn’t viewable in any of the photos I saw of supposedly representative Umbanda gatherings – probably for reasons that don’t need to be spelled out).
This background information, aside from being informative, is enlightening as to what Pederneiras is doing here. The white skirts have nothing at all to do with ballet, and everything to do with Ubandan gatherings. Much of the choreography I described is consistent with a religious ritual, and with visualizing being “possessed.” But as I wrote above, I saw a distinct sensual component to the ceremonies, which isn’t referenced in the possibly sanitized initial sources I reviewed. But I found one that did.
Holy Harlots: Femininity, Sexuality, and Black Magic in Brazil is a 2011 book written by Kelly E. Hayes, Associate Professor of Religion at Indiana University and published by University of California press (and which is available on Amazon), which is described in part as “examin[ing] the intersections of social marginality, morality, and magic in contemporary Brazil by analyzing the beliefs and religious practices related to the Afro-Brazilian spirit entity Pomba Gira…. Said to be the disembodied spirit of an unruly harlot, Pomba Gira is a controversial figure in Brazil. Devotees maintain that Pomba Gira possesses an intimate knowledge of human affairs and the mystical power to intervene in the human world…”
In an excerpt from the book that I was able to access, the author writes: Pomba Gira is the generic name for several entities “portrayed as “a woman of ill repute,” sometimes a courtesan, sometimes a prostitute, but always a woman whose erotic life while on earth contravened the norms of proper feminine comportment and whose disembodied spirit continues to be linked to the world of the living. Because of these ties, Pomba Gira is believed capable of erupting into people’s lives in unpredictable ways…. In midnight ceremonies devotees ritually summon these entities with drum and song to the human world, where, incarnated in the body of one or more trained mediums, individual pomba giras commune with admirers and attend their petitions. These are events of great revelry for it is said that pomba giras return to the human world not only to assist petitioners but to se divertirem (have fun): to dance, sing, enjoy their favorite vices, and be adored. Uncontrolled such spirits may possess the unsuspecting at will, provoking all manner of affliction and scandal. Abrupt or striking changes in an individual’s manner, particularly those involving licentious or provocative behavior, unpredictable mood swings, vulgar language, rebelliousness, or debauchery, may be interpreted as evidence of possession by an untamed pomba gira.” [pp. 4-6]
With this final piece of the puzzle (at least in my head), Gira can be seen in part as an extraordinary choreographic invention, but also as a creation based on multiple facets of an Afro-Brazilian practice during which possession by spirits, including spirits that encourage fun and reduce inhibitions, and/or allow a practitioner to, perhaps subconsciously, become the person they want to be or to experience – at least for the length of time of the dance. And now that I think I understand its component parts, I see that Gira (the dance) is an accurate reflection of exactly that, down to its title, and is memorable for far more than just the possible prurient interest it arouses. And although its focus is slightly different, it intentionally includes the Dionysian elements that I thought I saw, facilitated by the spiritist concept of being possessed.
The dancers to be credited would require a page by itself. Suffice it to say that all twenty danced with abundant energy and skill – as did the four musicians who provided live accompaniment.
Balance of Program 4:
A Choreographic Offering is José Limón’s tribute to one of his mentors, Doris Humphrey, who, together with Limón, co-founded the company in 1946 and was its first artistic director. Beyond illustrating his technique (which, in addition to “fall” and “recovery,” focused on the use of breath, and weight and weightlessness), Limón’s choreography focused on drama, often incorporating themes from literature and religion and sociological history as well as pure dance. He’s most well-known for his The Moor’s Pavane, a take on Shakespeare’s Othello, which is generally recognized as a masterpiece (and which was on the program of the first ballet program I ever saw, performed by American Ballet Theatre).
Following Humphrey’s death, in 1964 Limón created A Choreographic Offering to J.S. Bach’s “A Musical Offering” as an homage to her. It includes embedded references to Humphrey’s choreography, and is one of his “pure dance” pieces.
The dance presented here was Suite from A Choreographic Offering, a frequently-performed set of excerpts from the original (although the excerpts shown may change from one performance to another), and can be seen as something of an homage to modern dance as well. As such, and despite the fine efforts of the group of nine dancers from the company, the dance has a somewhat dated look to it (modern dance isn’t modern anymore), but it’s still vibrant and quite entertaining – seamlessly moving between solos, duets, small groups, and the larger ensemble with an overall sense of fluidity – and through it one can see the evolution of modern dance as expressed in more contemporary choreographers such as Paul Taylor, particularly with respect to the frequently-displayed rounded, upright arms.
At least equally important to the dance’s genesis are the independent qualities it brings to contemporary viewers. In addition to being a showcase for the company dancers, who executed the choreography with clarity and polish, it communicates a sense of joy, which makes it a perfect opening piece for a repertory dance program.
The program lists the dancers in some sort of order, but it’s not clear what that order is – and at frequent intervals the “corps” groups or parts thereof passed into and/or out of a segment that had a one or two featured dancers. My assumption is that it’s a listing of dancers generally in the order presented. Regardless, as listed in the program, the company dancers were Joey Columbine, Frances Lorraine Samson, Natalie Clevenger, Mariah Gravelin, Johnson Guo, Nicholas Ruscica, Jessica Sgambelluri, Eric Parra, and Savannah Spratt, with the first two and last two being featured more than others.
Following the U.S. premiere of Interlinked, Program 4 concluded with the world premiere of The Center Will Not Hold, commissioned by City Center and performed by a group of dancers combined under the name “Ephrat Asherie & Michelle Dorrance” rather than the name of any specific company – even though the program lists the piece as “a Dorrance Dance Production.” Be that as it may I recognized names of listed dancers from prior Dorrance Dance performances (and Asherie herself was a member of, or guest with, Dorrance Dance when I first saw that company), as well as Brenda Bufalino, here listed as an Artistic Advisor, who had appeared on one of that company’s previous programs.
Since I was highly positive about previous Dorrance Dance programs, and was also impressed by a program I saw a year or two ago at a FFD program presented by Asherie and her company, I had every reason to expect that this would be of the same choreographic quality.
And it was. But … there was something missing. Maybe it was the somewhat (to my eyes) downbeat ending, maybe because there were fewer high-octane ensemble dances, or maybe because the music was not the multi-instrument live group that I’ve previously seen. There was nothing “wrong” at all; and Dorrance (and to a somewhat quantitatively lesser extent Asherie) and the other dancers all performed admirably, with moments of excitement that had marked their earlier programs.
It might have been helpful to have some explicatory information in the program, but the piece, overall, appeared to posit that street dance and tap are fruits of the same tree, and consequently are presented as melding together (somewhat) as the piece evolves.
The Center Will Not Hold begins with Asherie and Dorrance standing opposite each other center stage, with each responding visually to separately delivered identical punctuated sounds. Soon the responses evolve somewhat differently (like, perhaps, different dance styles), and after the two of them retreat upstage, they’re joined by the other dancers, at times singly, at times as part of a larger group, including Dorrance and Asherie, displaying their individual excellence. As the dance progresses, to highly rhythmic and percussive music composed by Donovan Dorrance and performed live by John Angeles (who is also listed as a performer), these individuals and groups essentially delivered a program that merged street dance with tap – not unlike some prior Dorrance Dance programs.
That being said, I sensed less of a merging than of two styles being performed independently, liberally sprinkled throughout the same piece; separately but equally. Maybe that’s the meaning behind the dance’s title: there is no merging; no center, even though the two strains are related.
Regardless, and even though appearing to me to be incomplete or still in progress, The Center Will Not Hold features some spectacular and unusual tap (especially by Dorrance), and similar examples of more typical street dance. I also must note the performance by Angeles, who initially plays the contraption making the percussive sounds, and then, somewhat awkwardly, joins the group of dancers as the piece moves toward its conclusion. The other performers (in addition to Dorrance, Asherie, and Angeles) were Manon Bal, Tomoe “Beasty” Carr, Fritzlyn Hector, Donnetta “Lil Bit” Jackson, Richie Maguire, Mike Manson, Charles “Lil Buck” Riley (who I’ve seen previously, but failed to recognize here), and Matthew “Megawatt” West.
Balance of Program 5
In addition to Gira, Program 5 presented classic examples of dances with classic themes from different cultures
The program opened with Bijayani Satpathy’s performance of Sitaharan. Here, as with other pieces in the Fall for Dance series, my primary complaint is that the program provides no explanation of the dance being performed. But with respect to this dance, that’s my only complaint. Sitaharan is a brilliant piece of choreography, brilliantly executed, and could be recognized as such by any member of the audience, whether or not familiar with classical Indian dance.
The classical Indian dance that I’ve been exposed to consists, generally, of pure stylized gestures expressing emotion or telling a broadly-themed story that are reduced to their essence. As I’ve often written, it can be quite beautiful to watch, but those examples I’ve seen (again, with some exceptions) appear slow and deliberate, periodically including pauses in which poses are emphasized. I can see why many draw a parallel between classical Indian dance, at least based on those examples of it, and choreography by Merce Cunningham.
This is different.
According to her program bio, Satpathy is one of the foremost masters of Odissi, a form of classical Indian dance, in the world. Her career has been long and distinguished, embodying the spirit and profound storytelling in a way few others have achieved. At what might be considered a late stage in her career, she left the group she was then performing with to venture solo, and has since achieved even more accolades, including in the U.S. – coast to coast.
The piece I saw clearly included far more expression, and far broader scope of movement, than I remember seeing previously. And it clearly was telling some story. Satpathy moved in fluid but propulsive gestures from one part of the stage to another, presenting her torso, her head (particularly her seemingly oversized eyes), and her legs and feet with different emphasis depending on the part of the story she was telling. I’ve seen prettier-looking dances that focused on stylized sequential posing, but this was far meatier. I was able to discern differences in facial gestures to reflect different situations: preening or grooming for something, a deer (with antlers), a bow and arrow, moving forward and back as in a battle. But not having the knowledge to pull it all together, I did some additional research into both Odissi and the Sitaharan story to better understand what I saw. I thought as I watched it that the story was about a hunt – and in a way it was.
From a description in an Indian dance informational web site (culturalindia.net), Odissi, one of the pre-eminent classical Indian dance forms, originated in the Hindu temples of the eastern coastal state of Odisha. It’s a form “of illustrative anecdote of mythical and religious stories, devotional poems and spiritual ideas emoted by dancer” through body movements, expressions, gestures and sign language. Its roots trace back “to the ancient Sanskrit Hindu text called ‘Natya Shastra’ which deals with different performing arts….Dance is divided in two specific forms in this text namely ‘nrita’ and ‘nritya’. While ‘nrita’ is pure dance that focuses on perfection of hand movements and gestures, ‘nritya’ is solo expressive dance that stresses on the aspects of expressions.” Most of what I saw can be described as “nritya.”
Following suppression by Muslim invaders, and after, by the British invaders, Odissi and other classical Indian dance forms were revived. The source text states that “the Odissi maestros who revived the art form in the late 1940s include Kelucharan Mohapatra,….” The version of Sitaharan presented here was choreographed by Mohapatra, “reimagined” by Protima Gauri.
The Sitaharan is a well-known episode in the epic Hindu poem Ramayana relating the abduction of Sita, Lord Ram’s wife. It’s complicated and difficult to understand, but its cultural significance is widely acknowledged. In abridged form, the overall story tells of an evil goddess who sees and instantly falls in love with Lord Ram, and wants him to marry her, but he already has a wife. Long story short, it leads to Lord Ram cutting off the evil woman’s nose. She subsequently seeks revenge by recruiting henchmen to kidnap Sita, Lord Ram’s wife. The Sitaharan episode that Satpathy presents here follows that.
As set forth on Satpathy’s website (and abridged here), the demon Marrech has been recruited to do the deed, and assumes the form of a golden deer studded with gems, which attracts Sita, and Sita begs her husband to fetch it for her. The “deer” plays tricks on Lord Ram, and, being a god (or the equivalent), Lord Ram realizes that it’s a trick, and shoots Mareech with an arrow and kills him. But before he dies Mareech assumes the voice of Lord Ram, and calls out for help. Believing Lord Ram to be in danger, Sita attempts to help her husband, but, apparently sensing something amiss, Lord Ram’s younger brother stops her, and draws lines of protection around her to keep her safe. But faster than you can say Sitaharan, the ten-headed king Ravan seizes the opportunity and, disguised as a beggar asking for food, convinces Sita to help – but in doing so Sita crosses the lines of protection, and Ravan thereupon kidnaps Sita and flies away to his kingdom. Sita cries, and a giant bird Jatayu hears her cries and attempts to come to her rescue, but after a great battle, Ravan cuts off Jatayu’s wing and the bird falls to the ground wounded.
I don’t know the significance of this excerpt, or the larger story, in terms of morality and behavior, but I suspect there are many Talmudic-like tomes that analyze them.
Satpathy condenses all this into a relatively brief dance, sequentially and seamlessly appearing as each of the characters living the events set forth in the Sitaharan. So I was right as to a part of the story – there was a deer and a hunt of some sort, but I’m sure I would have been able to decipher more had I had this information in advance.
Regardless, Satpathy is a marvel of incessant motion and instant character changes presented with clarity. It was quite a performance, and one that the audience apparently recognized as such based on the boisterous applause at the piece’s conclusion.
And the musicians who accompanied her provided the atmospheric background sufficient to add another level of authenticity to Satpathy’s performance. They were Bindhu Malini Narayanaswamy, Anjib Kumar Kunda. Sibasankar Satapathy, and Srinibas Satapathy.
In between this piece and Grupo Corpo’s Gira, two dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet, Germain Louvet and Hugo Marchand performed Maurice Bejart’s Songs of the Wayfarer.
I’ve not seen either of these dancers perform live before, but I’ve seen excerpts of some pieces danced by Marchand. Both are POB Etoiles. And the 1971 piece is a little masterpiece of appropriately limited choreographic breadth, but with a seemingly unlimited set of cerebral overtones. In essence, the story tells of a wayfarer –a youthful journeyman or a simple traveler (…one who goes ‘way far’) – at the outset of a journey through life, with the young man (novice, student, disciple, acolyte) being observed, guided, corrected, taught, watched over, seduced) by an older mentor. It’s choreographed to a score by Gustav Mahler (an excerpt from Symphony No. 1, and a song cycle), and since its debut performance by Nureyev and Paolo Bortoluzzi it’s been assayed by a who’s who of danseurs.
The performance here was ok. As the wayfarer, Louvet delivered a passionate portrayal of a would-be prodigal son, but I thought that Marchand’s portrayal was far more emotionally limited, visually, than it could have been, or should have been.
Part of my reaction to this performance was having seen the miraculous performance of this same piece by David Hallberg and Joseph Gordon at a Joyce Festival program in 2019. The intensity displayed here by the older mentor didn’t come close to what I saw in Hallberg’s performance (which, among all the performances of his that I’ve seen, was one of his finest); and although Louvet’s visualization was more intense, it was several degrees lower than the magnificent (and relatively revelatory, since he’d only just be promoted to NYCB principal) performance delivered by Gordon.
That being said, I must emphasize that the performance here wasn’t bad at all, and at its conclusion, the audience responded with great enthusiasm.
Following Gira, this program, and FFD 2023, ended. Overall, this incarnation of the series, its 20th year, was similar to prior FFD programs I’ve seen in the series: at times provocative, at times revelatory, at times pandering, at times too politically correct, and at most times excellent. It likely will continue this way for many more years to come – which, in the overall scheme of things, is something to look forward to.
And I must also note the extra welcoming “performance” by City Center’s new CEO Michael Rosenberg (who this year succeeded the now retired Arlene Shuler, on whose watch the series began). Rosenberg introduced each program with a joie de vivre that was infectious – as well as, appropriately, relatively hilarious – especially at the opening night performance. While he may not (yet) be a stand-up comedian, he’s a stand-up CEO.