Review: Bending It Like Bharatanatyam

Review: Bending It Like Bharatanatyam


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Preeti Vasudevan (hands covered in flour) talked and danced in “Stories by Hand” at New York Live Arts.

Credit
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

“I struggle with English,” the dancer Preeti Vasudevan told an audience at New York Live Arts on Thursday, speaking eloquently in English. The problem, she explained, was a physical one, the sense of an unbridgeable distance between her and us.

“Tamil is my body language, the one I move with,” she continued. And as she began to speak in Tamil, she sprang to life, still seated as before but newly animated and unguarded, as if confiding in friends.

Photo

Ms. Vasudevan.

Credit
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

This was the first of many stories told through multiple languages, gestural ones included, in the world premiere of “Stories by Hand,” a collaboration between Ms. Vasudevan and the digital artist and writer Paul Kaiser, who served as her dramaturge. Though Mr. Kaiser is known for his contributions to landmark experiments merging dance and technology, like Bill T. Jones’s “Ghostcatching” and Merce Cunningham’s “Biped,” the pared-down “Stories” bears no technological traces other than Robert Wierzel’s sensitive lighting and Paul Jacobs’s sound design. It’s a thoughtful if not always riveting hour of talking and dancing, informed by — but not beholden to — Ms. Vasudevan’s years of training in the classical Indian dance form Bharatanatyam.

Traditionally Bharatanatyam conveys Hindu religious stories, in part through an intricate lexicon of hand positions known as mudras. Ms. Vasudevan — performing solo except for two assistants who help with minimal set and costume changes — makes reference to gods and myths and the history of the dance form, offering witty lessons in mudras and their meanings. But the tales she imparts come from her own life as a woman born in southern India and living in New York.

Some of these are almost mythically tragic, particularly the final one, in which she recounts with uncanny evenness the night her cousin Karthik killed his wife, three children and mother-in-law before killing himself. Lighter moments find her chatting with her grandmother about marriage and walking through the red-light district of Lahore with her British boyfriend. Her delivery is sometimes cloying, sometimes deeply absorbing.

At her wildest, Ms. Vasudevan swirls and skids through white flour she has laid on the ground, propelled by a recording of roaring drums. (The extensive program notes, which include a “conceptual story map” detailing the work’s three sections, inform us that this is a dance of the god Shiva as lord of cremation, surrounded by ash.) Yet it’s her simpler gestures — like the slow, deliberate action of feeding her grandfather, as she recalls spending time with him in India — that say the most.



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