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Wednesday September 12, 2012

Dance feast

Sutra’s dance festival bewitched audiences with its blend of classic and contemporary.

THE Bahasa Malaysia word “tarikan” means attraction, and there was certainly no shortage of attractive elements in Sutra Foundation’s recent dance festival Tarikan!, held in Kuala Lumpur. Featuring three very different dance productions over a period of 11 days, the festival highlighted Sutra’s many facets as one of Malaysia’s leading dance schools, while displaying its evolution over the years.

Renowned for its mastery of classical odissi repertoires, Sutra has made a name for itself by bringing contemporary synchronisation and sensibilities to the classical Indian dance style. In Tarikan!, this dynamic is inverted by also featuring contemporary dance compositions that use distinctly Asian classical elements. Special mention must be made of Sivarajah Natarajan, whose brilliant lighting design enhanced each of the productions, and Guna, whose costume design never failed to impress.

The festival kicked off with Transfigurations, where two contemporary modern works, Panjara and She Ra, were premiered. Performed beautifully by Sutra Dance Theatre (SDT) dancers, the two pieces were striking in the contrasting ways they explored mythology, particularly feminine archetypes.

Hypnotic: Pallavi, one
of the productions in
Sutra Foundation’s
dance festival Tarikan!
— RICKY LAI/The Star Hypnotic: Pallavi, one of the productions in Sutra Foundation’s dance festival Tarikan! — RICKY LAI/The Star

Panjara (“cage” in Sanskrit), choreographed by SDT principal dancer Rathimalar Govindarajoo, was a visually-arresting piece that combined the vocabulary of traditional Asian dance forms with modern sensibilities to ruminate on the evolving roles of women in society.

Having the dancers in a literal enclosure (ballet bars were used to box the dancers in) was a clever way to represent the suppression of the feminine, and allowed for some unique and powerful choreography as well. Rathimalar’s contrasting of lyrical movements with bursts of contortions, matched by composer Edwin Anand’s blend of harmonious and discordant sounds, was very effective in conveying multiple meanings.

Simple yet layered, Panjara seemed to suggest that while women continue to struggle against their “captivity”, they in many ways also allow these boundaries to define them, and therefore perpetuate the cycle of suppression. Featuring energetic performances by Tan Mei Mei, Sivagama Valli, Geethika Sree, Talyssa, Rathimalar and Divya Nair, the piece was heightened by Nalina Nair’s incarnation as an Earth Mother of sorts, replete with hypnotic Balinese-infused movements.

She Ra, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as accessible. Conceptualised by guest choreographer Kalpana Raghuraman of Korzo Theatre in The Hague, the work drew parallels between Indian mythological characters, superheroes and the human experience.

While it started off with an appealingly tongue-in-cheek, anime-type vibe, the point of the piece became rather obscured as it went on; the choreography was inventive, but often didn’t seem to serve a larger narrative. Kudos, however, should be given to the dancers (Rathimalar, Divya, Geethika, Tan, Sivagama, Jyotsnaa, Nalina and Harenthiran) for their execution of the complex routines.

Tarikan!’s second offering, Sutrarasa, paid homage to Sutra’s roots by showcasing a pure odissi duet, performed by Sutra founder Ramli Ibrahim and one of his star dancers, 18-year-old Geethika. Presenting the classic repertoires of odissi revivalist Guru Deba Prasad Das, the show was a chance to watch one of the pioneers of odissi in Malaysia perform with the next generation of locally-trained dancers.

Ramli Ibrahim and
Geethika Sree
performed in
Sutrarasa. Ramli Ibrahim and Geethika Sree performed in Sutrarasa.

Ramli, of course, was a joy to watch, performing with an ease and effortlessness that spoke of his years of experience. The real revelation, however, was Geethika, who captivated the audience with an elegance and maturity of movement that belied her young age.

Her performance in the pallavi (exposition of dance and music), in Raga Saberi, as a mountain-dwelling femme fatale who enslaves and eventually consumes her male victims, was simply stunning. Her mastery of bhav (expression), combined with her graceful yet powerful movements, truly brought the piece to life.

Ramli, meanwhile, played the lovestruck acolyte to perfection, sharing wonderful chemistry with his student. Another highlight of the night was the duo’s performance of Navarasa, where episodes from the Ramayana were used to illustrate the nine rasa (sentiments).

The final production, Pallavi, was an apt finale to Tarikan!, as it brought to the forefront the uniquely Sutra style of odissi. Focusing on imagery, group compositions and formations, it was a great example of merging the principles of classical Indian dance with a more contemporary emphasis on aesthetics and visual impact. The repertoire also showcased the talents of the current and next generation of Sutra dancers by bringing together SDT’s seniors and up-and-comers.

The show wowed the audience from the very beginning, with the Mukhari Pallavi. Highlighting the statuesque poses and intricate footwork associated with odissi, the piece was group coordination at its best, and featured the talents of Guna, Divya, Sivagama, Tan, Geethika, Nishah Devi and Michelle Chang.

The brilliant opening was somewhat let down by the next piece, Shankarabharanam Pallavi by the newer dancers, which lacked energy; Harenthiran’s exuberant performance in the number, however, was commendable. The pace picked up again in the Rageshri Pallavi, a lyrical, beguiling item where the raga (musical arrangement) is manifested as four dancers, here personified by Nishah, Tan, Chang and Divya. The piece was a lovely meld of graceful movements, complex footwork, and expression, and principal dancer Guna complemented the women perfectly with his energy and spontaneity.

The Arabi Pallavi then provided a refreshing contrast with its fast-paced footwork and swift movements, and with its rapidly changing formations, was a good example of that Sutra touch. Bringing the night to a rousing finish was the Bageshri Pallavi, a fast-paced, rarely-performed piece that saw Guna, Harenthiran, Mohd Syawal Mohd Din, Nishah, Divya and Tan in top form. Rearranged by Sutra to accommodate multiple dancers, the item’s original choreography was energised by innovative positions and interactions, and ended the show with a series of stunning images.

As Tarikan! drew to a close, one couldn’t help but wonder what Sutra has in store next, as taking in all three productions allows you to appreciate, not just the different ways in which Indian classical dance can be interpreted and re-interpreted, but also Sutra’s own unique journey.