Bharatanāṭyam Dance at UMKC’s Cockefair Chair Lecture Series

Example of Bharatanatyam Mudra. Photo by Suyash Dwivedi, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Audience members who persevered to the last half hour of the latest UMKC Cockefair Chair Lecture, “In Love and War: Critical Representations of Bharatanāṭyam Dance Today,” presented by guest speaker Hari Krishnan, Chair of the Wesleyan University Department of Dance, were rewarded with a vital, if all-too-brief demonstration of the Bharatanātyam classical dance of South India. 

The handful of dance pieces — most, representative fragments — were skillfully performed by Annie Kidwell and Maren Westgard, two gifted young dancers (also from Wesleyan University). Between them they generated enough propulsive rhythm, pattern and energy to enliven the stage and allow viewers to extrapolate the fantastic effect of dances performed by larger troupes. 

Before and between their dances, Krishnan supplied useful context, such as the symbolic system of the gestural vocabulary. While much no doubt went over the head of viewers more familiar with western dance, these samples of Bharatanātyam were still deeply pleasurable, giving an overall impression of irresistible vigor and verve. Even gestures symbolizing lovelorn emotions, such as hopeless longing, were sharp and definitive, while leaps and stances were forceful, creating the dramatic silhouettes familiar from Indian art (geometries made all the starker by the dancers’ plain black attire), rather than the more languidly liquid flow of classic ballet.

Annie Kidwell and Maren Westgard. Photo design by John Elmore.

Every bit as compelling was the instantaneously thrilling, powerfully hypnotic music — Carnatic ragas performed by Krishnan, B. Balasubrahmaniyan (Adjunct Associate Professor of Music at Wesleyan University) and Fugan Dineen, who holds a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan. Balasubrahmaniyan and Dineen each provided intriguing background into their respective instruments, the tambura and mridangam, as well as some basics of Carnatic music, including a fascinating solfege and oral notational system. Their “live musicking” (to borrow Dineen’s lovely phrase) was much more than accompaniment. Rather, the musicians’ cyclically rhythmic chanting, vocalizations, drumming and droning called forth the dance. The dancers in turn responded to the music, at times adding their own insistent foot stomping to the beat. Polyrhythms built in complexity and tempo, to devilishly catchy crescendos. It was the most mutually animating exchange I can remember having seen, within a classical mode, between musicians and dancers—a truly dynamic and exciting interaction.

In a two-hour-long program front-loaded with the reading of a long, scattered and esoteric academic paper that left the performance, when it was begun at last, playing to a much-thinned audience, perhaps only 25 minutes total was filled with the promised dance and music. That, however, was glorious — a tantalizing taste that left us wishing for much more.

Grace Suh

Grace Suh's work has received awards from the Edward F. Albee Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts USC Arts Journalism Fellowship, Hedgebrook Writers in Residence Program, Djerassi Resident Artist Program and Charlotte Street Foundation.

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