Review: The Charms and Pitfalls of Dancing the Gods on Camera

Since 2011, the World Music Institute’s Dancing the Gods festival has consistently delivered high-quality Indian dance to New York. Last...


Since 2011, the World Music Institute’s Dancing the Gods festival has consistently delivered high-quality Indian dance to New York. Last year, like so much else, it was canceled. This year, like so much else, it’s virtual — which means that another stage experience is being mediated by cameras, with all the attendant possibilities and pitfalls.

In at least one respect, classical Indian dance should benefit from the camera’s eye. One of its glories is storytelling, often concentrated in facial expressions — details that close-ups can magnify. But just as a stage actor’s performance pitched to the second balcony can seem too broad, too loud, when it fills a screen, so can a dancer’s.

That’s what I came to feel about Rama Vaidyanathan’s contribution. Vaidyanathan appears on a porch in Delhi, embodying three women in love in three Bharatanatyam pieces titled “Vexed,” “Arrogant” and “Anxious.” (The festival, available on demand for the next three weeks, comes in two installments, each featuring a headliner filmed in India and an opening act who’s a New York local.)

As is common, Vaidyanathan introduces each dance with a synopsis. That’s helpful for those who don’t know the story or language of the accompanying song, but also useful for anyone wanting to track how a simple scenario can be elaborated and expanded into song and dance. Perhaps it was the true-confessions tone of her synopses that put me off. “I knew something was wrong when my friends started behaving strangely with me,” begins one, a story of a woman whose lover kisses and tells, “the worst thing that can happen to a woman.”

Vaidyanathan is a masterful artist, but in the collapsed distance of film, her program’s emphasis on what the text called “feminine wiles” was too much: too much eye-rolling, too much attitude. Only in the final episode, when her character is extolling the beauty of her lover, Krishna, did the dance expand and vibrate with the energy of a god.

In the second program, Surupa Sen appears at Nrityagram, the village in southern India where she has lived and worked for three decades. She, too, offers three solos in her style, Odissi; three poems from the Gita Govinda; three depictions of women in love with gods. But these achieve an immediacy and intimacy suited to the closer view.

The first is a prepandemic stage performance, which shows Sen’s authority in her usual setting. But I preferred the second two: gorgeous compositions choreographed by the Odissi guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and filmed in a cozy dance studio at Nrityagram.

In one, the woman waits in a bower for her lover, adorning herself, and the anticipation, so strong it hurts, comes through in the physicality and rhythms of the dance. If that’s before, the final piece is after, a postcoital scene. Here, the languor and softness of Sen’s performance are very far from the stagy attitudes of Vaidyanathan. The camera captures something close to emotional nakedness.

That’s a gain for a virtual festival, whereas the festival’s opening acts are mostly misfires. In “Willow,” the New Jersey-based Kathak dancer Jin Won goes in for double exposures and crass music reminiscent of a cheap horror film; it buries her skill. In “The Sun Unto a Day,” the Bharatanatyam dancer Sonali Skandan places herself in cyclorama void like the one on “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”; it exposes her imprecision.

Dancing the Gods

Through June 12 (Program 1) and June 13 (Program 2), worldmusicinstitute.org.

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