The Erasing Borders Festival, with the variety of Indian dance styles on display, and its mixture of ensemble and solo performances, might offer New York’s best introduction to Indian dance. Presented by the Indo-American Arts Council, the festival typically takes place in late August, but this year the council joined with Trinayan Dance Theatre to produce a spring series as well.
Due to travel plans, I could attend only one performance at this iteration: the opening night, held at The Club at La MaMa, which featured Sujata Mohapatra, one of India’s leading Odissi artists. (Odissi is one of eight classical forms of Indian dance.) Mohapatra’s appearance came just weeks after another group of Odissi dancers — the Nrityagram Dance Company — performed at the Joyce Theater. Mohapatra is a gripping solo artist, and she too demonstrated this ancient art form’s exciting possibilities.
She established her presence immediately in the mangalacharan, a blessing that traditionally opens an Odissi performance and salutes the earth, the guru, and the audience. After squatting repeatedly, her palms full of flower petals, Mohapatra moved through a series of sculptural poses marked with bent limbs and striking balances. Arms moved fluidly while feet moved staccato, and to an entirely different beat. Her musicality was clear as she played with and against the rhythms of the score. She showed great physical strength as well: When she stomped, one could feel the resulting vibrations through the floor.
Mohapatra was at her most radiant and mesmerizing in Pallavi, the second work on the program. This piece — a nritta, or pure dance composition — was more clearly about the music, with Mohapatra playing a game of call-and-response with Padmasri Raghunath Panigrahi’s rollicking score. Although this was only my second Odissi performance, a number of the movements in Pallavi — the arching the arms while using one hand to clasp the pinky of the other — stood out as unique within the form.
Just as impressive were Mohapatra’s talents as an actress, which she showed in abundance by dancing an excerpt of the epic poem the Ramayana. In this narrative piece, she portrayed no fewer than seven characters, some human and others animal. (Mohapatra explained, before the piece began, that dancing this number of roles was highly unusual. She learned all seven by chance, as a substitute for other dancers in rehearsal, and later convinced her guru to let her to combine them all in one performance.)
She performed each role commandingly and distinctively. As the dance opened, she was Rama, the archer, stringing a bow and stalking cautiously through the woods, her legs in a wide masculine stance. Moments later, she became Sita and might have been gathering fruit from a tree, her eyes moving seductively from side to side. Then she transformed again, into a deer, batting her eyelashes and springing about the stage. My understanding of the mythology was weak, but I could follow what was unfolding. The changes in lighting, which signaled character shifts, were a great help.
Mohapatra was followed on opening night by Prashant Shah, a performer versed in Kathak, a form of dance from northern India. His solo, Pravaah (meaning “flow”), was defined by sharp contrasts. Dramatic leaps, high-speed spins, and percussive footwork frequently gave way to moments of complete stillness. Shah also invited audience members to partake in the dialogue between movement and music by encouraging them to count rhythms out loud.
Participation was tepid. By that time, most spectators seemed exhausted, and the odd ordering of the program could have been to blame. Before his solo began, Shah acknowledged the great honor of performing after Mohapatra, a superior performer and one of the great masters of any form of Indian dance. For all his charm and enthusiasm, Shah might have fared better as the opening act to Mohapatra’s tour de force.