The Odissi Ensemble opened Luton Hat Factory’s Beyond the Frame Sunday afternoon performance series with an improvisatory exploration of the spaces of the venue’s café, moving between the packed tables to make their stage the broad window sills. The quartet of dancers offered a literal interpretation of the series theme – breaking out of the theatrical frame of the black box and transcending the interior space of the venue by dancing in front of the tall windows, attracting viewers on the pavement outside. Short solos by Elena Catalano and Kali Chandrasegaram gave a taster of the rhythms and abhinaya that followed, while Katie Ryan and Maryam Shakiba‘s duet offered a playful moment between friends. Violinist May Robertson’s strings offered a lyrical background for the danced prelude.
Moving into the theatre, the dancers were joined by live musicians in an interchange rich in sight and sound. Robertson’s violin was joined by percussionist Gurdain Rayatt on the pakhawaj drum instead of the usual tabla, with Ranjana Ghatak’s vocals supplemented by Parvati Rajamani’s vocal rhythms. The sonorous tones of the pakhawaj added an unusual layer, explored in depth in a solo interlude in addition to laying the foundation for the accompaniment throughout the event. The Odissi Ensemble’s Gods and Mortals programme is subtitled ‘Beauty, Depth and Drama’ and the six items fulfilled the promise. Exquisitely costumed, drama and joy alternated with technically-complex pure dance elements across the pieces. The dancers are well suited in style and talent; individual personalities stood out, yet blended with each other in moments of tight unison in the group passages.
The ‘Gods’ component of the programme emerged in multiple manifestations, seen in the opening ‘Mangalacharan’, a traditional dance acknowledging the space, the universe and the audience. Lighting emphasised kaleidoscopic patterns when the dancers gathered together under a shaft of light, only to separate out to scatter flower petals on the four corners of the stage. Paying tribute to Ganesha, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles, a sense of ensemble extended to both musicians and dancers. Elena Catalano’s solo Srita Kamala was an insightful evocation of Lord Vishnu, moving through vivid portrayals of iconic scenes. In ‘Bhagavati Ashtaka’ Kali Chandrasegaram channelled the goddess Shakti, transcending genders in an exploration of destruction and creation. The ‘Mortals’ are celebrated in moments such as the ‘Hari-lha’, Katie Ryan and Maryam Shakiba’s evocations of playful gopis or milkmaids loved by Krishna, and in passages of dance that explored the dynamics, joy and passion of movement. Ryan’s solo Batu explored the sculptural qualities of the dance that flowed through her body, matched by a clear musicality.
The quartet of dancers are at home in their own creations and in the traditionally-choreographed pieces that they helped to arrange, revealing a deeply-embodied understanding of the key components of odissi. Expressive faces, fluid arms, percussive footwork and sculptural poise dominate, as the dancers move through the offset posture that distinguishes the classical form. There is a freshness and unaffected quality to the dramatic component. Mimetic actions reveal flowers and nature, the jewellery, the sense of play between friends, love and power of the gods. Chandrasegaram choreographed a sloka (Sanskrit verse) embodying the goddess Kali, bringing to life a grounded vision of destructive intensity. Joined by the three female dancers in Moksha, the show closed in an intense display of rhythm and power that built in complexity. The dancers seemed to thrive off the energy of the musicians, revelling in the live accompaniment and unusual grouping of odissi dancers culminating in a vibrant display of musicality and physicality. The Odissi Ensemble succeeded in revealing how the spiritual and human are intertwined, shifting between the power and serenity of gods and the sensuality and love of life of mortals.