There are two basic perspectives from which to consider this solo evening by the multi-faceted Anita Ratnam, a well-known dancer, choreographer, writer and producer (among other roles) with roots in Chennai and long-standing links to New York. One is as a rare (and, for the uninitiated, slightly rarefied) opportunity to see a celebrated soloist in an intimate setting. An alternative view might be as a tantalising taste of what she has to offer but in frustratingly truncated form. I’m inclined to take the first and more positive slant.
Ratnam’s visit to London was a co-presentation between Beeja and Asia House.
The lighting was rudimentary, and the playing area a small but handsome upstairs room containing a neat, disused fireplace at one end. Framed by attractive marble figures, the latter provided Ratnam’s performance with a classical backdrop that complemented her own background as a bharatanatyam practitioner who’s forged her own route into cross-cultural contemporaneity.
Ratnam is a middle-aged woman with pleasing features, an elegant bearing and the capacity to draw an audience towards her rather than foist herself upon us. This innate magnetism served her well in what I understood to be three short excerpts from longer works. (For the record, the performance was entitled Her and Bliss, followed by the bracketed words ‘in chapters’.)
In her first appearance Ratnam embodied a wide-eyed devotee of Vishnu consumed by an erotic yet spiritual longing for Krishna and, on the soundtrack derived from thirteenth-century chanting, his conch. Co-choreographed (as was the entire programme) by Hari Krishnan, this was a mainly sedentary piece that placed the expressive emphasis on Ratnam’s face and fingers. After a brief pause, awkwardly filled with a minimal bridging text, she returned as Sita in conversation with the unseen deity Hanuman in the forest. To those without a more thorough knowledge of the Ramayana this presentation might have been less clear and captivating. Still, through a repeated use of accumulated, full-bodied gestures (sometimes delivered on a diagonal, and at another point moseying along in a gently looping pattern) Ratnam conveyed the dual notion of a conflicted dialogue and a searching journey.
As a finale Ratnam made good on the claim, quoted prominently on her promotional material, that ‘through dance I can be every woman’. This mainly abstract, non-linear but highly symbolic piece (cut down, or so I gathered, from fifty to perhaps fifteen minutes) allowed a display of the more modern side of her artistic skills and life experience. There was a kind of birth, with Ratnam pulling on an invisible umbilical cord and drawing herself out; an outlining of breasts and hips as if to suggest self-definition as a still-fecund earth mother; and a carefully controlled fluctuation of hysterical emotions pitched between weeping and hilarity but ultimately lodging in a semblance of exhaustion. Alongside her shifting dramatic focus Ratnam’s movements conveyed speed, when necessary, plus an economical power. She has the aura of a diva, but a very human one.