Samskriti Brings Orissi Dance to the Miller Stage

The Setup: On May 31, Samskriti presented its annual Incredible India program at the Miller Outdoor Theatre. Each year, Samskriti brings the most acclaimed performing arts groups from the Indian subcontinent to the Miller Stage. Incredible India 2013 showcased the dance artistry of the Orissa Dance Company under the direction of Aruna Mohanty.

The Execution: The name of the concert, Gatha Odissi: The Journey From Temple to Stage, reflects the progression of the program, from the traditional roots of orissi dance as a sacred ritual to its development as a theatrical stagecraft. The show opener, Krupanidhana, compiles the traditional dances used in three festivals honoring Lord Jagannath.

Orissi dance looks very much like bharatanatyam, another of the eight classical Indian dances. The latter style emphasizes the poses of the Hindu gods whereas orissi dance encourages the fluidity of movement between each position. In the first piece, the dancers never stop moving. They work through the changes in tempo, their feet moving to the rhythm of the music while their arms and torso interpret the melody. There is a constant ebb and flow that seems to emanate from the solar plexus, and then works its way into the arms before releasing through the fingers. Those intricate hand gestures were visible from the back of the Miller's seated area, as large and lovely to behold as Magnolia blossoms.

Gatha Odissi lost its power as it moved to a more contemporary use of orissi dance, in particular to tell stories in imitation of Western dance theater. Krishna Saranam was a nearly forty-five minute piece that attempted to bring to life key moments in the life of Lord Krishna. While there are strong moments of ensemble work, much of the narrative uses mime, a Western theatrical device, to convey action. The dance becomes a secondary element to the detriment of the pacing of the set.

As dance critic Anthony Shay has noted, most national-level world dance companies have at least one choreography in their repertory that represents the "rainbow diversity" of the country of origin. The Orissa Dance Academy is no exception. The final piece, Swargaadapi Gariyasi proved to be a beautiful showcase of regional dance throughout India and its effect on the orissi tradition.

The dance was accompanied by film segments of Indian life, but like the text used in earlier pieces to clarify the meaning of the movement, it is wholly unnecessary. All that matters is the dance - those ornate poses, the handsome formations of the limbs and the percussive footwork that is music unto itself. The final sequence with three trios of dancers performing different phrases in between measures of stillness had the power of enchantment.

The Verdict: It's a shame that so many of the audience members left after Krishna Saranam and missed the gorgeous ode to Mother India that served as the finale. But it was bound to happen. Krishna Saranam was a bit too long and its narrative ambition did not resonate with viewers who came to see beautiful orissi movement rather than follow an extended story suite. Still, Gatha Odissi was a special contribution to the Houston dance community. To witness orissi dance, or any of the other seven classical Indian dance styles, in top form feels like a blessing.