Dance review: Chowk's graceful blend of the classical and the contemporary

The set-up was simple. A row of four musicians and a narrator seated along the side of a stage, which was occupied by four classically-trained Odissi dancers.

But once the flautist sent the first warbling note floating through the air of the Drama Centre Black Box on Friday night, a transportative evening began which demonstrated sensual beauty, exquisite control, and the importance of having a firm foundation in any contemporary work.

You Cannot Look Away, the inaugural performance by Chowk Productions, certainly lived up to its name.

Although Raka Maitra, artistic director of the company, has been creating ensemble works since The Hungry Stones in 2011, this show marked the formalisation of Chowk as a company, after receiving an $80,000 seed grant from the National Arts Council this year.

The show was a joyous four-part affair, punctuated by moments of levity. It also bore the hallmark of Chowk; a riveting blend of the discipline of classical Odissi with the freedom of contemporary dance.

The first segment was a powerful invocation, calling to mind a temple procession; the second was an ode to the physicality and beauty of the dance form, with an announcer introducing the segment as a "three dimensional painting".

Each of the four dancers, and Maitra in particular, spoke the language of Odissi so fluently that the lift of a heel, or the tilt of the head was boundlessly expressive, and the musicians also each turned in spectacular performances.

While Maitra is familiar with employing live music, it is still a treat to observe the give-and-take between the dancers and musicians, and the unpredictability of it does grow the performance significantly.

The highlight of the evening, however, was the third presentation, which used the vocabulary of Odissi to interpret Tamil poet Cheran's My Land, a plaintive declaration of his relationship with his native soil.

As the text was read out in both Tamil and English, the four dancers slowly created an intersection between meaning and movement with slow, evocative gestures and yearning glances.

However, at points, the reading of the poem felt hurried, and the full weight of the text did not have the chance to settle over the audience before it was swept up in the next sentence - a pity, because short phrase of the poem was weighted with meaning.

The final segment of the night was a simple, comfortable return to the classical roots of Odissi dance, and was a fitting homecoming after the foray into the contemporary.

Chowk sets the bar for any attempt to blend the old and new, and it manages to straddle the divide without resorting to the gimmick of adding a trill or ornament from the classical vocabulary.

The company is an important voice in Singapore, and it bridges the gap between the classical and the contemporary with grace and surety.