One of the most ravishing dance events in recent years was the 2015 Nrityagram Dance Ensemble performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The majesty of the Temple of Dendur was matched by the moving sculpture of dancers Bijayini Satpathy and Surupa Sen. Now Satpathy is back, this time alone as the MetLiveArts artist in residence, performing last weekend and next in galleries surrounding the museum. The delight has returned.
In the series, called ‘Sima’ or ‘Thresholds’, Satpathy expands her solo explorations of the classic Odissi style, pushing her boundaries in response to the art around her, and she does so in collaboration with the composer Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy. On Saturday and Sunday, Satpathy offered two short pieces (each less than 15 minutes long) in two galleries, each incredibly and incredibly different from the other.
‘Taru’, Sanskrit for ‘tree’, took place in an Islamic gallery, where carpets from Spain hung under a decorated ceiling. Narayanaswamy’s recorded score took the Iberian theme and translated the Hindu form tarana to classical guitar. Satpathy seemed especially inspired by making Islamic patterns, fractal and tree-like.
One of the glories of the Odissi style, as practiced by Nrityagram, is how the sinuous poses, the deep curves and curves are sculptural but not static. Every moment is a picture perfect, but just when you think the form is complete, it stretches, it bends further, it deepens. At the start of ‘Taru’ Satpathy’s eyes turned to her hands, each opening like a blooming flower, one on top of the other in an ascending pattern that seemed to pull one of her legs up to the opposite knee, a poised stance which intensified as she leaned back.
Satpathy made this a principle of choreographic composition. She repeated a step in a circle, then added circles in her torso or head and twisted those circles within circles into a spiral. The result was a sense of flow, a sense of long form progression in repeated figures.
This was especially true when the music got rhythmic and she marked the meter as the cycles twirled, banging barefoot on the floor and adding jumps at the end of sentences that weren’t exclamation points, but breaths. She played circles against diagonals and returned to rings at the end, spinning at a back corner.
“Antaranga” – located in a modern and contemporary gallery for Sam Gilliam’s draped painting “Carousel State” – was strikingly modern, with Satpathy entering like any other museum visitor, dressed in contemporary attire and without the usual bells around her ankles. But it was also old, for within Narayanaswamy’s score of shuffling percussion and moans was a recitation in ancient Greek (by Niti Bagchi) of Sappho’s Fragment 31.
That poem is about the physicality of erotic torment: the fluttering heart, the fire on the skin, the buzzing in the ears, the trembling everywhere. And this is what Satpathy embodied – now wearily caressing the floor, now tangling herself. Hands that started holding her head—that ancient and contemporary image of pain—later circled each other like mutually attracted bodies, shaking to animate the fire.
The floor was here too, as she arranged her arms in a ring, clasped her fingers and stretched them behind her head—then set this pose in motion, twisting on her knees. (As she looked away, her arms closed her face, love darkened itself.) But these progressions were more dramatic, following a woman’s emotions as she pondered love, cradling it in her hands, then fighting it, falling out with one hand in front bent, balancing and lengthening like a bow or arrow, quickly withdrawing like a matador.
Satpathy ended by standing and watching “Carousel State,” as if the dance had been her character’s response to the art, the memories, and emotions it evoked in her head. “Antaranga” and “Taru” were the superlative dancer and choreographer’s responses to the Met’s stimuli, her art enhanced by that of the museum and vice versa.
It is therefore a shame that both performances seemed more arranged for the cameras that captured the dance than for the museum visitors who were cramped around the cameras to experience it live. In September, Satpathy performs in the museum’s theater, but if you choose to go on a Saturday, arrive early to stand a chance of securing a good seat.
Through Saturday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; metmuseum.org.