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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, July 26, 2014

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The Natya Dance Theatre of Chicago performed at the Peck Pavilion Tuesday night.
The Natya Dance Theatre of Chicago performed at the Peck Pavilion Tuesday night. (Photo: Amitava Sarkar)

Natya dancers simply divine

The classical form of South Indian dance known as Bharatanatyam is derived from temple dancing. In ancient Hindu houses of worship, female devotees known as "Devadasis" performed elaborate rituals carried out with dance and music for the praise of various deities. 

Today, Bharatanatyam is the among most popular and well-known of all Indian dance traditions, and the Natya Dance Theatre (NDT) of Chicago is one of the premier Indian dance companies in the United States. The troupe visited the Peck Pavilion Tuesday night as part of the summer LIVE @Peck Pavilion series, exposing Milwaukee audiences to this ancient genre.

The dancers seek to tell the stories of Hindu gods through steps, facial expressions and hand gestures. There seem to be no accidents in Bharatanatyam, and so there were no noticeable mistakes in the compositions of the NDT.

It would seem that each foot, each finger and each dart of the eye was carefully calculated, precisely executed – almost divinely appointed. The dancers cultivated, in their careful movements and serene faces, an aura of holy devotion, of religious fervor. They proved themselves worthy successors to their ancient Devadasi forebears.

Any dancer would hate to make a false step but usually has the comfort of knowing the audience will not notice; because of the bells affixed to their ankles, an out-of-place foot for a Natya dancer would be both visible and audible, and by some miracle there seemed to be none. They moved seamlessly as a group but also leaped apart for individual performances. In this way they retained both a sense of cohesion but also of contrast.

The company’s vibrantly-colored costumes and elaborate traditional jewelry did not distract from the artistry of their actual dance. Bharatanatyam relies heavily on facial communication; eye movements ("drishti bhedas") are especially integral to the composition. Performers who must be silent storytellers always run the risk of looking like overzealous mimes; the Natya dancers, however, were far too graceful to ham it up. They were admirable actresses, relying on emphatic but statuesque hand gestures and heavy, meaningful glances to tell their tale. Their movements were as articulate as any words could have been.

The preservation of this dance technique is important to the identity of people of Indian descent or those who espouse the Hindu religion; however, it is equally enriching to the foreign audience. No matter what your background or beliefs, when watching the Natya Dance Theatre, you feel as if you are on holy ground.

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