Choreographers and artists of all stripes working in classical styles have long sought to push the boundaries of their chosen genre, keeping a thread of timelessness or formal beauty or heritage, while stretching into fresh modes of expression, breathing new life into old forms and keeping them relevant. Ballet is probably the most common example, a courtly dance so formalized its rules beg to be broken, dating back to Nijinsky’s stomping, tribal, riot-inducing “Rite of Spring” of more than a hundred years ago. Pranita (Jain) Nayar, executive artistic director of Mandala South Asian Performing Arts, is testing the bounds of the highly formal dance style she has worked in for over thirty years: the Indian classical dance Bharatanatyam. Nayar is a recipient of the Chicago Dancemakers Forum’s Lab Artist Award, which has allowed her to delve into the experiment with seven of her dancers over the last year. The fruits of their labors—an entirely new dance style—go on stage at the Studebaker Theater on Friday, October 6.
In the studio, Nayar applied contemporary techniques to Bharatanatyam movement. During a rehearsal visit I witnessed how she deconstructs the complex classical vocabulary of hand, foot and facial movements and, indeed, the dancer herself; in one section, dancers perform the precise rhythmic footwork on the floor with their hands, while two more stand behind performing the hand movements (with their hands) and another, covered to the neck, performs just the facial and head movements. The literal deconstruction of the Bharatanatyam dancer was at once humorous and hypnotic, and truly illuminated the complexity of the form. In another section, the same technique is used to interpret a fourteenth century romantic text. There is a strong sense of play in the work, a willingness to move into a strange and lovely absurdity, as when two dancers, completely draped in yards of fabric, sway and roll across the stage like colorful ghosts. The sari figures prominently in the work as well, at one point a backdrop for a projected history of the dance style and a pointedly used symbol for female modesty. The culmination of the project will undoubtedly present Indian dance to Chicago as it has never been seen before. (Sharon Hoyer)
At the Studebaker Theater, 410 South Michigan. Friday, October 6 at 7pm. $25. Tickets at www.eventbrite.com.