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March 7, 2006

Aspects of the Feminine

It was a scene almost out of an E.M. Forster novel; a view of India that through western eyes was stereotypically oversimplified – that of elegant chaos. “Dancers with a Difference” was a performance of four female soloists at the Indian Consulate. Hundreds of people were generously invited; the amount that accepted and showed were at least double the seating prepared. A white sheet was spread in the front of the ballroom where the performance took place to protect the oriental carpeting; people took off their shoes and sat down and still there was not enough room; not room for the consul’s guests, nor room for the dancers themselves. We squeezed to the side as they stepped over us to reach the stage. Elderly women were fanning themselves with postcards to combat the excessive heat from the crowd. I shed my shoes first, then my sweater. By the third performer, I wasn’t sure that I could feel my legs. People paid attention, but attention in a different way; they talked, they laughed. I could hear one of the dancers behind me stamp in sympathetic rhythm as she was carried by the beat when another performed. Much the same, in a row of chairs behind the musicians playing; a drummer from a previous performance drummed his thighs. The ballroom of a Fifth Avenue mansion built by the Astors felt like a festival outdoors.

The four soloists, Swati Gupte Bhisé, Anita Ratnam, Rajika Puri, and Janaki Patrik each specialize in a different area of Indian dance; each were allotted fifteen minutes to give us a taste of it. Bhisé showed us “at aerobic speed” Ashtanayika: 8 Broad Facets of a Woman in the Bharatanatyam style. Ratnam performed Neo Bharatam, a forceful amalgamation of classical and modern styles; Puri danced in the Odissi style a section from Devi Malika depicting the story of Radha and Krishna, and Kathak – The Art of the Storyteller gave Patrik a chance to break down the art of Kathak for us. Each style is subtly different. Kathak is marked its spinning charkas and percussive stamps. Bharatanatyam is flickering where Odissi is sinuous.

Bhisé had two students perform with her, beautiful Indian girls of about fourteen years of age. It is quite marvelous to see the movement on young girls; in its oblique innocence it almost seems devised specially for them. Each girl was adept at the motion of rotating the neck and head off the axis of the spine and the beautiful wide-eyed but strangely focused stares that throw us into another world and perception. One of them stumbled and fell during a plié; she quickly got up and it only made her more delicately attractive.

The strange connection I came away from the performances was with the relationship between these dances and drag. It’s certainly not a direct one, but I think it’s there, and if I had to guess how it would be to trace back from Martha Graham’s onstage mystique to Ruth St. Denis’ fascination with ethnic dance. It was most apparent in Bhisé’s dance. She presented us with “8 broad facets of a woman” – what is drag but the same boiling down not of womanhood, but the broadest essences of femininity? In the same way Bhisé’s portraits went beyond womanly to hyper-feminine; the woman who shouts at her lover to leave immediately, and then is furious when he takes her literally. Ratnam showed us seven graces of the Buddhist Goddess Tara; again broad strokes and essences boiled down. Puri’s tale of the love of Radha, as fair as sunlight and the roving Krishna, whose skin is as deep blue as the evening sky was the gentlest of all. It showed another aspect of the eternal feminine; She Who Forgives, part Graham, part torch songs.

The hyper-feminine extends to the idea of the diva; a divahood similar to old-school modern dance. Each woman could hold a stage in an overcrowded, overheated room; Puri readjusted her microphone barely missing a beat from the spell she wove. Amidst the powerful stampings in Ratnam’s dumb show were moments of silent-movie mime. It tapped into the same mystique as a lip-synch of a Pop Goddess. The only westerner of the lot, Patrik’s work was the most direct and constructed like a lecture-demonstration; a simple theme was amplified and varied into impressive elaboration. She was also the one who broke one of the rules of divahood on stage: If the music is off tempo, if the microphones are not working, if the volume is too low, do not let the audience know it is disturbing you. Carry on as if nothing is amiss and kill the offending parties afterwards.

Before sending us out into the winter night, the consulate treated us to a feast that was perfect given what had come before; delicious tandoori chicken, samosas and kachoris were served in a packed room where the waiters ran out of glasses and plates long before the people stopped arriving.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at March 7, 2006 6:13 PM

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Very interesting thoughts re projection of feminine stereotypes -- it's almost methodical in its nature, which makes the performance more vivid.

Posted by: sandi k at March 10, 2006 1:21 AM

When Arlene Croce wrote on the Trocks, she quoted Stéphane Mallarmé (I'm mangling it from memory) to the effect that a ballerina is not a woman who dances because she is not a woman and she does not dance. I think that, and the Japanese onnagata from Kabuki, tap into the same mystique. Not actual womanhood but femininity as a concept.

Posted by: Leigh Witchel at March 11, 2006 9:57 AM

But how many steps are there between a concept and a stereotype? "Manly men and womenly women."

I saw a joint flamenco/Bharata Natyam concert several years ago that illuminated some of this stuff for me -- they were all working towards a very specific, and very different, image of woman.

Posted by: sandi k at March 11, 2006 2:30 PM

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