A Journey Through One of the Oldest Dance Traditions in the World

Review: The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, Āhuti

Nrityagram Āhuti | Credit: Karthik Venkatraman

Music and dance have an uncanny ability to take you on a journey to unknown places. We’re very fortunate here in Santa Barbara to have the programmers at UCSB Arts & Lectures helping to curate our cultural adventures. 

From the moment the four male musicians accompanying The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble began to tune their instruments onstage at Campbell Hall — including Siba Nayak (violin), Parashuram Das (bamboo flute), Rohan Dahale (chants, mardala (percussion)) and Jateen Sahu (voice, hawum) — I felt like I was traveling to India. I could almost smell exotic spices in the air. Either that or I was in a James Bond movie fantasy.

Indian dance evokes a very dreamy, mesmerizing feeling. Even when its meaning isn’t entirely clear to Western audience members, the dance vocabulary, facial expressions, precise movements and gestures have their own personalities, conjuring fanciful, foreign images in our minds. 

Considered the premier Indian dance ensemble performing in the Odissi tradition (one of the oldest dance traditions in the world, a 2000-year-old art form), Nrityagram (“dance village”) was founded in 1990 and is located outside Bangalore, India. Although steeped in and dedicated to ancient practice, the ensemble (whose all-female dancers for the October 19 performance included Pavithra Reddy, Abhinaya Rohan, Anoushka Rahman, Rohini Banerjee, and Daquil Miriyala) is also committed to carrying Indian dance into the 21st century.

The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble | Credit: Karthik Venkataraman

Part of that move toward modernity appeared to be the collaboration with the Sri Lankan company Chitrasena, composed of both male and female dancers, including Thaji Dias, Amandi Gomez, Kushan Dharmarathna, and Geeth Premachandra. 

This program, Āhuti, which means “offering,” featured four numbers: Sankirtanam (“a prayer), Poorarati, Invoking Shiva, and  Ālāp. While all were quite expressive and evocative, the two that featured both dance companies — Poorarati and  Ālāp — were by far the most vibrant and engaging to my eye.  Āhuti, created in 2019, was the second creative partnership collaborative production between the two companies. The first was the critically acclaimed Saṃhāra (2012).

Next up in the A&L Dance series (on November 15) is something completely different: a journey into the artistic mind of revered American Choreographer Bill T. Jones with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. His latest, highly-personal work, What Problem? was developed with an original score to accompany text excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

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