Ground-breaking dance work

Pallavi In Time (above) by Chowk Productions. PHOTO: ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY



Chowk Productions

Esplanade Theatre Studio/Last Friday

Sustained elegance, intense focus and beauty suffuse Raka Maitra and her dancers in a performance that emphatically deconstructs and abstracts the classical Indian dance form odissi.

There is no linear narrative, darting eyes or specific hand gestures denoting Hindu gods. Chowk journeys in unison patterns meshing and dissolving around the space, creating an ebb and flow of pure movement bookended by the odissi tribhang pose.

Emanating from sculptures of ancient temple figures, this traditional pose pre-determines that the knees are continually bent, the body asymmetrically tilted and the elbows open to the side parallel to the floor, making a frame for the dancer to work within.

Pioneering and brave, Pallavi In Time clearly defines a new contemporary path for this movement vocabulary. Perhaps eliminating the intention and storyline is disquieting to devotees of odissi dance, yet the inventive choreography and quality of the five performers, including Maitra, outweigh these considerations.

Fresh and alive with gestural nuances, subtle rhythmic shifts and innovative dance phrases, the piece builds through repetition and reconfiguration of dance material.

A haunting flute solo evokes a serene atmosphere at the start.

Clad in silver waist belts, saris, jasmine hair wreaths and elaborate make-up, the dancers respond through small wrist circles that extend in a wave through their arms and torsos. Establishing a close formation and a leitmotif of spiralling through the spine, they progress with measured walks to arrive at the starting pose to commence a new section.

As two exceptional singers and a percussionist accompany the dance, the first loud foot stamps of the evening echo through the theatre and the rhythm begins. Enhanced by traditional ankle bells, the feet are illuminated by a line of floor lights giving focus to the foot beats.

Although abstraction is the essence of the performance, there are emotional shifts.

Contemporary movements with the body curving forward, then arching back, are sensuous and free. Shoulder isolations and playful smiles become flirtatious and, at times, almost calculating as if the audience members are co-conspirators in this daring foray into a new way of presenting classical Indian dance.

In the final moments, they let loose in a joyous celebration of rapid footwork and complex motifs that centrifuge through the body from the ground up. The company exudes discipline and stamina, and articulates each moment with complex artistry.

Maitra and the Chowk dancers are at the cutting edge of contemporary Indian dance.

Previous productions have been thematically driven, bringing social issues to the stage in multi- disciplinary performances that typically incorporate dance, text, composed music and on-stage musicians.

Pallavi In Time revisits the odissi vocabulary that underpins Maitra's creative process and is a ground- breaking work in the Indian classical canon.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 24, 2017, with the headline Ground-breaking dance work. Subscribe