Saturday, July 25, 2015

'Devánjali': Grasping the Elusive

Dancing for gods isn't easy. They're hard to please. Easy to offend. Nothing short of the deepest impulse and energy can move them. That's why you need spontaneity. And consistency. "Devánjali", the latest production by the Chitrasena Dance Company, erupted last Saturday and Sunday. Those who came, watched, and went away were pleased. In terms of spontaneity and consistency, those who performed stuck well to the show's vision. The gods were pleased.

Decades ago it was Chitrasena and Vajira who performed in the country. Then came Upeka. Now it's the third generation, who've vowed to preserve the Guru's legacy. Going by what the audience felt, that's what they did. For that, they needed a balance. They found it. That's how or rather why they brought both tradition and modernity together. For us.

The first item with the Gara Yaka was thrilling, even unsettling. It began with a bang. Literally. The yaka himself came on stage and blessed performance and spectator. That set the mood and tone for the entire show, full of vibrancy but always disciplined, never even once going overboard. Considering how productions like this slip up, that was notable.

There was one person who brightened up the stage. Thaji Dias. She captivated the audience. She kept them on the edge of their seats. In how she balanced movement, kept consistency, and fine-tuned her dance to drumbeat, they were thrilled. Those claps which greeted her were (not surprisingly) genuine. They weren't given out of politeness. They were given out of honesty. With no reservation.

Yasodhara Kariyawasam, who hadn't planned on attending the show until the last minute, was impressed. She had this to say about Thaji: "She was impeccable. She didn't jar. All her moves were calculated. To the dot. That doesn't mean she was mechanised, because in how she smiled as she danced her way, you could see enthusiasm. That's rare, especially for someone who had to exert energy as much as she had to."

Next in line was a sequence dedicated to Lord Ganesha, with three dancers – Akila, Geeth, and Dayan – showcasing talent in celebration of a deity worshiped by Hindus and Buddhists alike. This and the next item (the "pantheruwa", dedicated to Goddess Paththini) evoked a sense of inclusiveness, which as Heshma Wignaraja (choreographer and part of the Chitrasena family) said removes any "Us v Them" demarcations.

The show moved towards a crescendo here. Crescendos can jar. This one sobered. Thaji came back with a lesson on dance as a means of attaining perfection. But the item "Moksha" provided us with a paradox. How can secular art help us reach enlightenment? That's where the Guru's own take on the subject, read out as an introduction, helped:

"Why do you repeat? To emphasise, to bring home a point. Why do you hold on? Because you know it will otherwise change. How can you grasp something which is elusive? This is the beautiful paradox of the dance and of life. When you know it, you can glimpse the permanence within the impermanence."

This crescendo paved way for a well orchestrated finale. Bringing together two female dancers – Sandani and Upeka – with Thaji, the male dancers, and the drummers – brothers Susantha and Prasanna, Udaya, and Varuna – they danced their way to an interlude. That interlude wasn't merely a coming together of sound and movement. It was a challenge. A combat. Onstage. Not one which involved victory or defeat, though. The purpose of this item, as one member of the audience put it, was to take in and involve us. The spectators. Explains why it had less to do with resolution than with the shattering of barrier between audience and stage.

Chitrasena's life consisted of three strands. He came from a theatrical family. He explored his roots. He went abroad, studying as he did what both West and East could teach him. In that sense he established a base in his country before experimenting. Just like a maestro would.

That's what "Devánjali" echoed.

Chitrasena didn't die. Vajira didn't retire. Both live and dance on. Through the generation that's taking their mantle forward. And through generations that will follow.

Photos courtesy of Christopher Rebert

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, July 25 2015