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Flash Review 2, 10-28: Slaves to the Rhythm
Shivalingappa Beats it

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

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PARIS -- I don't know about your Tuesday night, but mine started with the Belgian man from Gent singing from the piano inside his van on the Place des Abbesses and ended with a man from who know's where chasing me down a dark Montmartre street not far from the Moulin Rouge intent on harming me. In between there was Shantala Shivalingappa at the Theatre de la Ville aux Abbesses, an Indian dancer in the Kuchipudi mode intent on giving thanks for the simple blessings still ours for the asking even as the world hovers on the precipice.

Normally I avoid concerts in the traditional Indian mode, not because it's not my cup of tea but because I'm not an expert, and, notwithstanding the New York Times's appointment of John Rockwell as its new chief dance critic, neither the artists nor the audience are served by uninformed critics. I gave myself an exception in the case of Shivalingappa simply because she knocked my socks off in Pina Bausch's most recent work, "Nefes" ("Breath") last June at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt. In addition to the precision and articulation in her fingers, which we know from other Indian forms, Shivalingappa added -- in her Tanztheater Wuppertal appearance -- flight.

This also turned out to be the case in Tuesday's Abbesses concert, in which Shivalingappa, accompanied by a live musical ensemble, gave the Paris premiere of "Shiva Ganga," an evening of choreography Kuchipudi school or style. (Most of the choreography was by her, except for the opening sun worship, by Master Vempati Chinna Satyam, and a dance inspired by the god Ganesha by Kishore Mosalikanti.) Landing on plie -- ouch! -- or ending the evening simply spinning lyrically, back and head hunched, in a small circle -- she was feather light.

But what stood out in "Shiva Ganga" was the mutual respect and relationship between music and dance. Much as in a Flamenco concert, the most intriguing dynamic going on here was not necessarily the one confined to the dancer-choreographer's body, but the one circulating between her and the ensemble of five musicians, including two soloist singers, a flautist, a percussionist and someone (like his instrument, unidentified in the program as far as I can see) on a string-like instrument that produced the underlying drone.

But by far the heart of the evening, rhythmically, musically, choreographically arrived with the extended play "Talamelam." If you've listened to Sheila Chandra -- specifically, "Speaking in Tongues I" and "Speaking in Tongues II" from "Weaving My Ancestors' Voices" on Real World -- or seen Sean Curran's 1999 "Symbolic Logic," set to remixes of the Chandra recordings, you know the type of rhythm excursion we were taken on here. In fact, as Chandra points out in her liner notes, the sound and syllables of the musical composition relate not just to the mrdingam and tabla instruments, but "draw upon the patterns of rhythm used in South Indian dance."

In her program notes for the evening's musical and choreographic riff on this theme, Shivalingappa notes, "If melody is the body of Indian music, rhythm is its heart. In India, one says: 'Melody is the mother, and rhythm is the father' of the music. It's the same for dance. The rhythmic system, tala, is an independent discipline, with a complex and subtle technique, finely developed. In effect, the innate mathematical sense of the Indian spirit endows it with a great rigor."

All forms of classical Indian dance have pursued the tala rhythm, each developing its personal language, Shivalingappa explains. For the form she's schooled in -- Kuchipudi -- these investigations take the form of rhythmic variations in the voice and on the percussion instruments, a game or conversation in the rhythmic language, and a conversation which finishes with a dialogue between the dancer and the mrdingam player. Or, as she puts it, "The beating of the feat respond to the virtuosity of the fingers." This conversation gives the dancer the opportunity to demonstrate the different positions of the Kuchipudi form.

"Talamelam," the segment on Tuesday's program which featured this conversation, began with a musical section created and directed by Savitry Nair and navigated by the rhythmic creations of B.P. Haribabu. Like the vowels between the consonants that book-ended his emissions, this pure music section was elongated -- not just a musical introduction to a dance but a work of virtuosity in its own right. When Shivalingappa entered, the responses in her feet -- as elsewhere in the program -- demonstrated that for this form, anyway, all muscles and landing surfaces of the feet are called into service. Sometimes she balances on the balls, sometimes on the toes; sometimes her feet are simply flat. At other junctures, she arches both feet while maintaining the balls and toes on the ground, then bending at the waist and looking up mischievously at the musicians. In fact, it's this personal regard -- toward her collaborators in this section, and in winking frontal asides to the audience throughout the program -- that make dance like this such a tonic in a European environment too-often dominated by disinterested post-modern dance.

Before I saw this dance, I was impressed by the musicality of Curran's effort to the similar Chandra chants, but there's a difference between dancing on the surface of the music and engaging it's soul, and Shivalingappa and the musicians taught me that.

The only miss, for me, came later, when Shivalingappa squeezed her feet into and balanced on a wobbly disk-shaped basket at center stage; the awkward way in which she shuffled it forward was the one note lacking grace in the entire evening, a 'prop' dance we could have done without.

Shantala Shivalingappa and her musical collaborators reprise "Shiva Ganga" Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Theatre de la Ville aux Abbesses.

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