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Flash Review 1, 8-16: Putting the Dance in Folk Dance
Janavak: Not What I Thought

By Terry Hollis
Copyright 2001 Terry Hollis

The following statement is not PC: When I walk into a folk dance concert, no matter what culture is being represented, I'm pretty sure I know what I'm gonna see. Point blank. I think we all have images that pop into our heads when we hear "Folk Dance," but my broad (and embarrassingly narrow) preconceptions about India's native dances were graciously updated by the Janavak Folk Dance Group. Presented last Wednesday as a part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors, this component of the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmadabad, India showed the energy, skill, beauty, and tension that evolves from everyday chores, from flattening the ground with poles to transporting water across a scorching desert.

At one point during the evening's only "contemporary dance" moment, two of the company's men begin an intricate martial arts inspired phrase mixed with fluid, academic arms, but they never become "dancers." They present strong, able bodies able to communicate the sequence, not for show but for integrity.

Using vigor and complexity, Janavak managed to raise the heat on an already sweltering night (and teach me a thing or two).

The highlight of the night for me had to be the Bhavai (covered by desert) from Rajasthan. Apparently, water had to be transported over long distances in Rajasthan and these dances evolved to make the trip a little more bearable. As performed here, a male dancer has a ball engaging the audience with a "couldn't be easier" demeanor as his companion gradually adds pot after pot to his head (with a grand total of six). The music takes the dancer through balances, knee walks, and spinning until you're sure he'll lose at least one, but as the numbers grow his confidence and playfulness do too. Towards the end, with the pots stacked six high, what he can't do with his body is transferred to an expressive, animated face and the crowd stops worrying and joined in on the fun. The women are introduced in a robust "Gond" dance from Madhya Pradesh. The movement has its roots in using sticks to pound and flatten the earth, and it seems that the women take special pride in showing the vigor and strength that they can muster up. I don't want to read too much into it because it is based on a basic chore, but this dance builds to such a raw, fever pitch that to see a group of women performing it holds lots of subtext (that we will leave to the sociologists...).

The closest that we got to contemporary "Modern Dance" was a male duet based on the martial arts forms of India. It grows out of a long, slow, sculptural section with both men mirroring each other in yoga inspired poses. All of this proves to be a stylized warm-up as the momentum builds and the movement links to kicks, squats, and lunges all paired up with wildly complex arms.

The tone of the duet does owe a lot to "concert" dance, and it is the only piece on the program that tries to generate it's own self-contained drama.

What really stands out is the way bodies trained in physical disciplines that are traditionally not showy trim the edges off of "pretty" movement. From Manipur was a short, hypnotic solo with two swords. As the drums rumble, the circular intertwining of the blades keeps you fixed on the performer and you lose sight of which is doing the driving: the music or the movement. Other dances brought the colorful spectacle that comes with celebration. Oppana, a wedding dance from Kerala, brings the bride's party and the groom's party on in separate groups. Carrying brightly-colored handkerchiefs, they join at the end weaving in and out of each other, mimicking their partners' foot patterns and accents.

Janavak rounded out the night with dances depicting mythology, fertility, and a celebration of the coming of summer, all refusing to be lumped under my generic "folk dance" umbrella.

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