'Psyche: the modern self'
mac, Birmingham, 14th October 2005
A contrast between historical tradition and present-day interpretations of Bharata Natyam seemed to be what was, perhaps a little too esoterically, implied by the title of 'Psyche: the modern self'. The event was an evening performance of two new works by Stella Uppal Subbiah; one entirely new (Meenakshi), and one a re-working of the ancient mythical tale of Rukmini’s marriage to Krisha (Rukmini).
'Rukmini' was a wonderfully precise adhesion to traditional classical Bharata Natyam movement vocabulary, choreographic structure and overall style, with the integration of tabla and vocals onstage and narration through spoken and sung verse by the dancers at heightened points of action within the narrative. In fact, the piece could be regarded as a textbook example of classical Bharata Natyam story-telling, although stylistic interpretations of such a detailed artform are always a topic of hot debate amongst the South Indian dance magic circle. The five dancers (Mavin Khoo, Liz Lea, Shijith Nambiar, Stella Uppal Subbiah, Mira Balchandran Gokul) are all uncontested master solo technicians in their own rights, yet worked seamlessly together as a unified storytelling machine. There were occasional moments when Liz Lea looked slightly less at home with the dynamics of choreography better suited to shorter limbs, and the geometry of her postures and gestures became markedly over-precise in compensation. However, the overall aesthetic of the company exuded under-stated elegance, the subtle sunset colours of the lighting and costumes complimenting a demure but assured movement landscape, punctuated by glimpsed peaks of full-beam emotion. Like a sunset, or a classical western orchestral work, 'Rukmini' demonstrated that, done well, this style of story-telling communicates its effect only when each moment is perceived with clarity and in relation to its preceding events.
Beautifully and graciously presented as the piece was, there was some, but not much, concession to context such as spoken English translations of a few key phrases from the vernacular text. Admittedly, an artform of this stature must not be diluted or unnecessarily modernised, but there were hints that this performance was for the pleasure of the initiated minority only. With programme notes ‘explaining’ that the “structure of the traditional varnam which develops both the abhinaya and nritta”, it is little wonder that the audience numbers were meagre.
A revelation of “the modern self” was more clearly apparent in the second piece to be shown, 'Meenakshi', and the arrangement of the programme invited the audience to contemplate the differences between the two works. 'Meenakshi', a contemporised non-narrative choreography evidenced influences of minimalism (a spare white, wash-lit set and recorded, pared-down tin taal accompaniment) and western contemporary dance (floorwork sections, re-arrangement of facings deconstructing the 2-D face-on full body view) but with classical gesture “inspired by classical tamil literature of different periods” as the movement foundation. All dancers looked at ease here, majestic even, dressed in celebratory red with golden trimmings, and presenting what is now the more popular or contemporary (although by no means secularised or disrespectful/disresepected) version of Bharata Natyam with which younger UK audiences identify.