Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London, UK; September 25, 2014

Stuart Sweeney

Seeta Patel.  Photo © Stephen Berkeley White

Seeta Patel.
Photo © Stephen Berkeley White

Bharatanatyam is fascinating not only as a dance form, but also as a cultural entity. The ancient form of temple dancing had become marginalised in India, but was revived by an inspired teacher, Rukmini Devi Arundale towards the end of the 19th-century. Then, in the 1920’s, Uday Shankar presented dance programmes in Europe and the USA, based on traditional Indian dance as well as Western styles. His work created an uproar and even Anna Pavlova was so impressed that she commissioned a work from Shankar. With this enormous success, when Shankar embarked on tours of India he ignited a new interest in  classical dance and by the late 1930’s it had become a respectable, even desirable activity for middle class Indian daughters.

With its strict codification, straight backs and formal quality, Bharatanatyam shares characteristics with ballet and the technique is no less demanding. Seeta Patel is a fine exponent of the form and in the first half of the programme she presented a solo choreographed by Mavin Khoo, Pushkala Gopal and Patel herself, based on the story of a young woman in thrall to the god Krishna and displaying a wide range of emotions: love, devotion and frustration at not meeting her idol. With exquisitely splayed hands and rapid thrusting of her arms sideways, up and down, Patel carved beautiful shapes. In the fastest sections her rapid footwork and small, precise jumps were immaculate. Interspersed with this dynamic movement were much slower passages featuring facial expression and hand movements both standing and sitting, to advance the narrative. Five fine musicians played in the carnatic style accompanying the excellent singer, Y. Yadavan, and providing a framework for the dance.

However, at just short of an hour, the dance material and in particular the slow, narrative sections were not sufficiently varied to justify the length. And while some found Guy Hoare’s lighting beautiful, I found its varied patterns that sometimes swept across the stage distracting. Also irritating was the way Patel repeatedly stepped back into near darkness at the start of her faster passages.

The second half of the programme featured Pushkala Gopal performing several songs in a sitting position, and showing us abhinaya, expressive hand movements from Bharatanatyam, all ably supported by musicians on tabla, flute, violin and percussion. While she introduced us to a different aspect of Bharatanatyam, it left me feeling that the familiar dancing is the most attractive form of Bharatanatyam for this dance fan.