The Southern Theater
April 30–May 3, 2009
Reviewed by Linda Shapiro
Sthree. Photo by Pat O’Loughlin, courtesy Ashwini Ramaswamy.
Ragamala Dance Theater’s Sthree expands the boundaries of Bharata Natyam, the classical form from South India, by amplifying its supple gestures and sculpted shapes into a richly evocative dance drama. Based on the ancient Tamil epic “Silappathikaram: The Tale of the Anklet,” the 90-minute work, with text by Zaraawar Mistry, explores love, loyalty, retribution, and karma. In the end, characters get what they deserve, and sometimes what they desire.
A filigree of arm and hand gestures, expressive mudras reinforced by intricate rhythms and pliant postures, tells this powerful tale. Under the direction of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, the dancers render Bharata Natyam’s ancient gestural code, a spirited and spiritual language that speaks directly to the gods, both lucid and exuberant. Characters emerge from a female chorus that refracts and enlarges the emotions of the protagonists. Coalescing into one multifarious being, these women can be fierce or fragile, stately or ebullient, spiritual or erotic. Sometimes they embody natural forces and dramatic events: flowing rivers, harrowing journeys, even a conflagration.
While shape-shifting abounds in Sthree, it’s the way in which these dancers alter the very textures of their bodies from moment to moment—the way they thicken, sharpen, attenuate, and refine the highly inflected vocabulary of Bharata Natyam—that best captures the protean spirit of the dance form.
The convoluted plot centers around the tragedy that befalls two young lovers, Kannagi and Kovalan, because of infidelity and an ill-omened anklet. Intriguingly, several characters are played by two or more dancers—an inspired choice for a work about karma and reincarnation. This shift of personnel creates multi-dimensional portraits. Played by Tamara Nadel, the besotted Kannagi displays a winsome eagerness and sexual awakening. (She and Kovalan are described as “snakes coupling in the heat of passion.”) Played by Ranee Ramaswamy, she is older and wiser, a loyal and forgiving wife who is also capable of fiery vengeance (after her husband’s wrongful execution, she tears off one breast and orders a city burned).
Madhavi, the courtesan who enraptures Kovalan, is danced throughout by Aparna Ramaswamy. A marvel of buoyant agility and sculptural clarity, she shoots off sparklers of sassy, sensual movement with a rhythmic twang suggestive of Scarlet O’Hara tossing off a “fiddlededee” to the world. Later, repentant, she tamps down the flames to a burnished glow of transcendence.
The original music (score by L. Subramaniam, lyrics by Prema Ramamurthy) heightens the drama and mystery, especially Ramamurthy’s gritty, slippery vocals. The narrative by Mistry (who also directed) admirably condenses this poem of more than 5,000 lines into a lush, if occasionally overwrought, narrative. In a sublime coda the women, worshippers in the temple of Pattini (the goddess Kannagi has become), collectively draw an intricate design or kolam on the stage floor. This Mandela-like pattern sums up the meticulous care with which the production (exquisitely lighted by Jeff Bartlett) evolves and involves its audience.