August 20, 2014
The conception of Sattriya, a form of classical dance from Assam, is attributed to Madhabdev, in the 16th century AD. Women never practiced until the 19th century, and it waited through the mid-20th century to join the pantheon of Indian dance forms. Sattriya Dance Company, consisting of three women, brought to Drive East a progressive honoring of lineage, so thorough it recognized Madhabdev’s teacher, Sankardev, a multi-disciplinary artist and reformer from Assam, in an evening in which history and myth were actively utilized to contextualize ourselves in the present. An altar stood downstage right. No dancer acknowledged it, but its reverent power over the evening was tacitly palpable.
Two duets by Madhusmita Bora and Prerona Bhuyan showcased a complementary pair. Bhuyan, markedly younger and lengthily limbed, is a crisp mover with clear execution while Bora navigates her joints with freer romanticism. The first duet captures Sankardev’s adolescent praise of Vishnu; the second, to a song by Madhabdev, honors a legendary war leader. Intense theatricality is balanced with subtle pure dance. The two are generally equidistant in all spatial configurations. If one solos, the other waits in stillness. Mudras flow like sign language, and when they swirl, there is no telling where they may end up.
Among the duets Anita Sharma performed two original solos, embodying scenes from the lives of Krishna and Siva. To accommodate the many larger-than-life characters portrayed, Sharma rarely held an emotive state for more than ten seconds, shifting between gods, mortals, and demons. She used classic postures to delineate Krishna’s flute or Siva’s iconic attitude, but through her own dramatic voice, lip syncing and using abstract movement to respond to mimed action. She is fond of falling to her knees, and from the most engaged pantomime on the ground, will twirl on one leg into soaring jumps. Her homogenous composition disguises her virtuosity.
The final piece came from Bora and Bhuyan, choreographed together. Bhuyan wears a modern uniform; Bora remains in her classical dress. They honor Dr. Bupen Hazarika, responsible for Sattriya’s recognition as a classical dance form. The music they dance to is his, but it, in turn, honors the Brahmaputra River, a meeting ground of people, cultures, and religions in Assam. The celebration of a landmark as an inspiration for diversity manifests in slight differences in each dancer’s movement. A foot flexed is firmly planted next door.
Sattriya, while rigorous, has a freer sensibility. Each dancer wears individualized facial expressions when a specific face is not choreographed. Mouths bare teeth. Two dancers might perform the same movement with opposite affects. In unison, upper and lower halves may vary. It’s as if whole bodies stand for sections of our psyches, so vastly beyond our understanding we need someone devoted to each part. It’s a different sense of choreographic counterpoint in which our reactions to the tiniest detail infuse with what is there. Each piece lacked a tableau. Dancers skittered away in gratitude as lights dimmed, never present for the applause. They are transcendent conduits.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews