Jayanthi Raman rides the tiger

The Bharata Natyam dance master dedicates her updating of the form to Shakti, the tiger rider

Saturday night, at the Winningstad Theatre in downtown Portland, on a stage crowded with musicians—superb musicians—and their instruments, Jayanthi Raman, richly, colorfully dressed in pleated, jeweled silk, starts her solo from a squatting position, knees turned out to the side, bare feet arched as elegantly as a bas relief of an ancient temple dancer’s.

Slowly, as the music starts, she rises and begins to perform the hand gestures, foot stamps, and shifting facial expressions that are the hallmarks of the South Indian classical dance form known as Bharata Natyam.

Jayanthi Raman dances with keyboardist Osam Ezzeldin and violinist Vidwan Ganesh Rajagopalan/Courtesy Rasika

Jayanthi Raman dances with keyboardist Osam Ezzeldin and violinist Vidwan Ganesh Rajagopalan/Courtesy Rasika

Raman began her dance training in India as a child, and  got a medical degree as a young woman. She came to Portland 25 years ago with her husband, retrained to get her medical license and worked as a research doctor at OHSU. At the same time, she began dancing in street fairs (I first saw her at ArtQuake), started a school and with others founded Rasika, which produces Indian music and dance performances, many of the artists brought over from India. A few years ago she decided to focus entirely on her dancing and choreography, and she has had considerable national and international success, including a National Dance Project touring grant.

Raman’s movements are traditional, an expression, it says in a program note, of various emotions, human and godly, that are part of this storytelling dance form. But as far as I can tell, this is not a narrative; it seems to be about various states of mind, playfulness among them. At one point she seems to be tossing a ball in the air and then catching it, face and body revealing something akin to a child’s delight in her own achievement. In another part, wide eyes and stamping feet express amazement.

Snaking arms, more than once, reflect the cobra often featured in images of the Hindu goddess Shakti, the subject of her dance. Shakti is also frequently shown riding a tiger: She is fearless, as is  Raman in her experimentation with a highly codified form of dance that is inseparable from Hindu religion.

Shakti is the god Shiva’s consort and the personification of divine feminine power in the Hindu pantheon. Raman’s dance, in part because of the music that accompanies it, a fusion of jazz and traditional Indian music, becomes an expression of her own power as a human, 21st century Indo-American woman. Her text is traditional, based on verses written by eighth century Hindu theologian Adi Shankara, some of it sung by violinist Vidwan Ganesh Rajagopalan, vocalizing rhythmically, setting the beat.

Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto also sets the beat and riffs on it, raising the energy level in the Winningstad Theatre to something that could well blow off the roof, and Egyptian-American pianist Osam Ezzeldin supplies a softening undercurrent of sound for this part of the program.

Raman’s dance is fascinating to watch in the context of her personal history and the traditions associated with this highly influential form of dancing, but on Saturday night it seemed more like an exercise than a performance. There are reasons for this: Her Indian guru, Adyar Lakshman, to whom she dedicated her performance, died a few days ago. Because the musicians and their instruments took up a considerable amount of stage space, she didn’t have the room  to perform the rapid traveling steps that have made previous performances so exciting. And perhaps the next time she does it, she will have developed some of the improvisational skills the musicians demonstrated in the second half of the concert.

That included challenge drumming (for lack of a better phrase) between Prieto and S.V. Ramani (on a clay pot instrument with which he performed a kind of dance, also at the beginning of the program) seated cross-legged on a platform. The interplay among all four musicians, the obvious pleasure they took in playing together, was infectious to say the least and gave me all kinds of sentimental thoughts about the possibilities for world peace through the practice of the arts. Not going to happen, but meantime Rasika, which presented the concert at the Winningstad, is off to a terrific start to its 2014-15 season.  The next concert takes place Saturday, September 13, venue to be announced.

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