Four musicians took their place on a raised platform at the side of an otherwise bare stage at Esplanade Recital Studio on June 12, for the Defining Moments dance performance, which opened with Maha Ganapathim, a traditional musical invocation to Lord Ganesha.
Dancer Priyadarsini Govind from Chennai entered in a multi-coloured costume and was adorned with jewellery that typically mark a bharatanatyam dancer. She cut a dignified and mature presence on stage for the show, part of the Dance India Asia Pacific Showcase.
Beginning with Alarippu in misra chapu (seven-beat rhythmic cycle), she moved straight to Varnam, the central piece in a bharatanatyam repertoire that reflects both abstract movements and narrative aspects of the dance form. In this piece in praise of Lord Brihadishwara, Govind executed the intricate rhythmic sequences with general ease and grace.
Although her footwork and hand gestures sometimes lacked clarity, her abhinaya (the dramatic aspect of the dance) was captivating. She gently led the viewer into an emotional space through her depiction of the heroine in love.
Abhinaya is Govind's hallmark and as she moved into the next two pieces that were purely expressive, she drew the audience closer and closer towards her.
In Nadamadi Tirinda, she delighted the audience with her humourous portrayal of a devotee who was questioning Lord Siva about his raised foot, a classic pose of the deity.
The next piece reflected contrasting emotions - Yasodhara's sorrowful plight, brought on by Prince Siddhartha's departure. Her intense expressions here evoked a deep sense of empathy in the viewer.
The scintillating Kalinganartanam - the young Lord Krishna's dance on the ten-headed serpent Kaliya, concluded the performance. Vocalist Vasudha Ravi sang with confidence while K.S Balakrishnan, Vedakrishnan and Bombay V. Anand provided able support on the nattuvangam (cymbals), mridangam (percussion) and violin respectively.
As the evening unfolded, one could not help but feel that the framing of the performance ought to have been different. Titled Defining Moments, Govind, in her introduction, led the viewer to anticipate a performance that focussed on those transformational moments in every person's life.
Except for the piece on Yasodhara that conveyed this idea, the overarching theme eluded the viewer for much of the performance - be it in the dance, music, costume, lighting or stage design.
Had Govind not encased the performance within a theme, the viewer would have been free to experience what it truly was - a traditional bharatanatyam repertoire or margam. When rendered by a mature and highly experienced dancer such as Govind, the margam can be a defining moment in itself.
Trained by the leading abhinaya guru Kalanidhi Narayanan, Govind has been a key representative of Narayanan's repertoire. Narayanan's sensuality-focussed technique became popular in Chennai around the 1980s, with abhinaya becoming a separate area for study in bharatanatyam training.
Now, over three decades later, dance students in Singapore have access to Narayanan's technique through Govind's training sessions at Dance India Asia Pacific. The wave of Narayanan's abhinaya has hit Singapore.
What Govind did not seem to realise was that even if she had performed her abhinaya sitting on a stool for the entire evening sans theme and title, the audience would have been mesmerised, for such is her calibre.