On Friday night at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, Jayanthi Raman, the director of Jayanthi Raman Dance Company and school, along with her company of five Bharatnatyam dancers, some local and some visiting (Shradha Vinod, Soujanya Madhusudan, Sweta Ravishankar, Mugdha Vichare and Ramya Raman), performed Anubhava, a mixed program of seven dances to a variety of traditional Carnatic music.
The word Anubhava has many meanings but generally refers to the ecstatic experience of the divine. The first half of the concert was an homage to Lord Shiva, the Hindu god known as the destroyer; the second half was devoted to Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and known as the creator or preserver.
Within the costume choices, choreography and hand gestures I could clearly see references to the gods’ identities, physical attributes and their historic stories. Shiva’s four-armed form was represented by a straight line of dancers lined up behind each other undulating their arms, creating the illusion that the first dancer or Shiva, has multiple arms. This is always a popular choice in Bharatanatyam choreography and a fun effect.
In general, the choreography was symmetrical, simple and straightforward, with the rhythms of the dancers feet and bells matching the instrumental rhythms in the music. Many of the dances began and ended with beautiful tableaus of the dancers posing as different characters within the stories. Raman experimented with different groupings of dancers on the stage, coming and going throughout the dance creating different relationships at different times. The dance themes ranged from abstract rhythmic dances to ancient stories from the Vedas.
The dancers, who were of different ages and experiences, were beautiful and talented, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. One dancer in particular, Sweta Ravisankar, embodied the aesthetic of Bharatanatyam completely, I thought. She was long and lean, her movements were sharp and quick, and she looked as though she enjoyed every minute of every moment on stage and shared this joy with us through her beautiful smile and boundless energy.
In the second half Raman performed a solo to a song called Thottu thottu pesum with lyrics by poet Periyasaamy Thooran. She spoke to us onstage before she performed, explaining that she had only heard the music once and was going to improvise the dance based on the three different types of love for Lord Krishna as described in ancient Indian dance literature: Vatsalyam or maternal love; Sringaram, romantic love; and Bhakti, devotion. As far as I know, improvising while performing in the Indian dance context is rare if nonexistent.
My issue with this particular improvisation was that it wasn’t an improvisation. The dance itself consisted mostly of pantomime that looked familiar to me as I have seen these stories performed many times before. The movement is pretty much set repertoire for any Bharatanatyam dancer. If you already know the dance, how does it all of a sudden become improvisation when all you’re doing is changing the music?
The beautiful dancing in the concert was undermined by many presentation and production problems, unfortunately. The concert opened with a recording of Raman reciting her biography and achievements while we viewed an accompanying slide show that went on far too long, it was later repeated in a shorter version during the last dance, an homage to Mahatma Gandhi on his birthday. Normally this information is printed in a program (there was no program) and felt inappropriately placed within the context of the performance.
The projections of photos of the different gods behind each dance included helpful translations of the songs, but perhaps those could have been printed in the program, and the constantly changing background was distracting. Many times the dancers forgot choreography or were out of sync with each other, and the curtains, lighting and projections did things they weren’t supposed to do.
This company has many of the ingredients of what a professional Bharatanatyam company should look like and that made these shortcomings stand out more than they might have otherwise.