Imagining the Divine: Asia Society presents Malavika Sarukkai

The Setup: On the evening of April 5, Asia Society presented Malavika Sarukkai's Darshan: Seeking the Divine at The Brown Foundation Theater for the Performing Arts. Sarukkai is a master is the classical Indian dance form of bharata natyam, and her program consisted of four solo pieces inspired by Indian mythology and folk art.

The Execution: It is possible to see bharata natyam in Houston, and even take classes in the form at a number of Indian arts institutions, but it is a rarity to witness it in its top form. From the moment Sarukkai begins dancing her first piece, "Stillness and Movement," the audience is enraptured by those gorgeous splayed hands and stunning Hindu poses, both signatures of the style. She explores the possibilities of movement and the tension of stillness, but what is most evocative in this dance is her use of gesture to convey the poetic devices of choreographed symmetry. Her hands and understated facial expressions suggest a story, but she is really calling attention to the beauty of bharata natyam technique.

In The Descent of the Ganges, Sarukkai brings to life a narrative of the holy river that runs through the eastern part of India. The dance begins with her hands rustling in the air, an evocation of the sparkle of running water. She then moves across the stage with the sway and gentle flow of a river, her arms maneuvering through the air like soft ripples. There are times when she moves in quiet contemplation, and there are times when she joins the frantic tempo of her accompaniment in a rush of mad, yet, gorgeous movement. She is the Ganges, after all, a river that has many temperaments. The dance is also metaphorical, for the turbulence of the Ganges, and its subsequent lengths of relative peace, are similar to the unpredictable whims of life itself.

The last piece is a retelling of Krishna's conquest of Kaliya, the poisonous snake god. Sarukkai depicts Krishna in a rapturous volley of passes across the stage, an effervescent smile on her face revealing Krishna's triumph. It is in this final piece, that one realizes that they have been moved by an evening of dance performed by a single performer. Magic has been made by a single musician. Like Krishna subduing Kaliya, she conquers the stage, no turns or leaps needed.

The Verdict: Sarukkai's program asks the audience to seek the divine through dance, to experience a confluence of spirits, to become aware and acknowledge the forces of the invisible world. There is an otherworldly quality of the Hindu poses in motion that does, indeed, touch soul. In association with Samskriti: Indian Performing Arts, Darshan is another example of the cultivated programming at Asia Society Texas Center. This is not just world dance at its best: it's world-class.

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