Asian Music and Dance

Shades of Love

It’s always gratifying to see a group of artists whose work evinces a potential to someday display them all together at the top of their game. Such was the case with the Odissi Ensemble, a quintet of classically-trained dancers that made an auspicious debut in Luton in a programme graced with the umbrella title ‘Shades of Love’. Certainly the audience appreciation extended to this one-off evening of short dances bodes well for the company’s future. 

First it might be worth mentioning the dancers’ backgrounds. Both Kali Chandrasegaram and Khavita Kaur received at least a portion of their formative training in Malaysia. Scheherazaad Cooper and Sitara Thobani are both linked to Canada, while Katie Ryan hails from Bedford. Now I’m no odissi specialist. (It’s the public’s relative lack of familiarity with the form and not just mine that makes the group potentially so valuable to UK audiences.) Nor can I therefore readily distinguish one particular style of odissi, or the imprint of one guru’s tutelage, from another. I only cite the diverse directions from which the dancers have come as a means of indicating the mix of flavours they offer. 

Apparently the seeds of the Ensemble were planted two decades or so ago via the introduction of community dance classes. This is commendable but, without meaning to minimise its importance, it’s ‘just’ an influential bit of history. What made the performance come alive for me were the high standards the dancers share. Each company member is operating at a similar level of skill, which means that the group’s quality is in their equality. 

The bill opened pretty much as expected with Mangalacharan, an invocatory dance by Guru Pankaj Charan Das for the entire Ensemble. This segued into Guru Aruna Mohanty’s Ramate Yamuna, a duet for Cooper and Thobani in which each was meant to be anxiously anticipating the arrival of Krishna. What I was struck by was how the two highly-attuned young women seemed to be each other’s mirror image, or some heart-flutteringly amorous but unfulfilled Rorschach test. At the close each seemed to be seeing her own reflection as if for the first time.

This was followed by Kolavati Pallavi, a lively and flirtatious duet by Guru Durgu Charan Ranbir for Kaur and Chandrasegaram. Part of the pleasure of the piece was in their size differences – him big, tall, fleshy yet strong, and her delicate and petite but with a fine spring inside her. The pair adapted the choreography to themselves, for instance adding a spot of hand-holding that almost carried a hint of swing or some other jivey Western social dance. It ended with Kaur alone; minus the mutually alluring attractions of Chandrasegaram she lowers her arms like a flower unfolding and then just a bit later raises them as if in a lovely, accepting surrender.

Kaur further proved her worth in Kadamba Bane Bansi Bajila Re, a solo again by Guru Durgu Charan Ranbir. Based on the lyrics of the nineteenth-century poet Gopalakrusna Pattanayak, it opened the night’s second half. Here Kaur was a delight – subtle, precise and witty in her abhinaya and simply gorgeous to watch. Chandrasegaram and Ryan followed this with Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra’s Chandana Chachita; very adept it was, too, even if the connection between the performers wasn’t as palpable, and nor is Ryan quite as physically pliant as I might’ve wished her to be. Still, like her partner she had the contrapposto curves and steps down pat.

Ryan followed this up with another piece, Shankara Pallavi, by the same Guru but this time dancing with Cooper and Thobani. This was pure dance with the three women on form like a smart yet dreamy machine composed of three symmetrically aligned muses. At the fitting finale all five performers struck semi-improvisational sculptural shapes.

No, alas, there was no live music. Nor did all of the tiny vignettes that functioned like love-theme connective tissue between the fuller-scale dances work. If the show needs refinement, that’s an attribute the dancers themselves happily already possess. May we see more of them in action. 



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