I had the privilege of seeing Ragamala Dance Theater perform their show "Sva" in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2008.
I left with mixed feelings.
While I found the choreography quite interesting and the Taiko drummer collaboration an unexpected meld, the execution confused me. These dancers were extreme in their movements: there was no subtlety within their limbs. Extensions became rigid hyper-extensions, eyebrow raises meant to show compassion or karuna became rapid up-down movements. At first I was aghast, off put by their supposed lack of technical skill and then, I started to wonder...
In bharatanatyam subtlety and grace/laya is usually considered the mark of a mature dancer. This was discarded - on purpose - by Ragamala. I wonder two things about this conscious (yes, it is conscious, I was informed by one of their dancers) decision -- one, if their intention of removing this aspect also removes it from the realm of bharatanatyam; and two, if the super forceful nature of their dancing is a wise choice in dancing the form. It's a question that questions what the "essence" of bharatanatyam really is. What makes their dancing belong under the bharatanatyam umbrella, what makes bharatanatyam beautiful?
The problem stemmed from their use of traditional pieces with full intention of achieving a performance experience that duplicated more traditional dance aesthetics (such as starting with a kauthuvam) that made the viewer question the execution. I didn't enter the theater thinking I was going to be watching different and significant stylizations of a traditional piece...so their rendition just didn't sit well. But if I had come in not knowing what bharatanatyam was, or knowing that they were changing aspects of it for aesthetic purpose, I might have had a completely different take on the evening. So the intention - of the troupe and the audience member - mean so much in this context.
So the question transforms yet again: at what point does changing valued aspects of it: form, structure, lexicon, and execution - differentiate between expanding boundaries and the creation of something new altogether? If the performer doesn't acknowledge the change they have created should I judge the dancer on what I expect to see, based on the expectations she herself has created through her visual look and her dance description?
It is clear that intention - and carefully relaying that intention to the audience member - has a great deal of meaning in South Asian performance. I actually think that intention is key in any rasa experience - it's like asking for tiramisu at a restaurant and receiving raspberry lady fingers and orange marmalade on top of a marscapone mouse. Yes, the second sounds delicious - but tiramisu is so well known that had I not known of the variations to the dish before I ordered I probably would have been upset receiving it. Not only that, but if you took the marscapone and made it a ricotta mouse, it becomes a deconstructed cheesecake.
At some point you can't imagine having tiramisu without raspberries, and at another point it's just become cheesecake. So where is Ragamala in all of this? Tiramisu with some bells and whistles (so still bharatanatyam) or cheesecake (postnatyam?). Or have they left the dessert genre altogether? :)
Interesting how food can make a three paragraph delve into the highly interpretable much more clear in a matter of three sentences, eh?