Asian Music and Dance

She Ra

After an enthusiastic response to her solo work The Spirit of Frida at the Epic Women Conference in December 2012, Dutch dancer-choreographer Kalpana Raghuraman was back in Chennai to present a new work, She Ra, commissioned by Ramli Ibrahim of Malaysian-based Sutra Dance Theatre. The piece was presented as part of Transfigurations, a collection of works ‘engaging the traditional in the modern’ showcased by Forum Art Gallery in association with Media Mix.

The name of the work is deliberately playful rather than profound, alluding not to an obscure deity, but to the 1980s cartoon character and action-hero She Ra, the ‘princess of power’. Each of the seven dancers embodies a superhero-god: Arjuna, Durga, Shiva, Hanuman, Kannagi, Ganesha and Devi. The overlaying of the superheroes’ strong and powerful characteristics along with their softer, round-edged qualities was played out through many contrasting layers of intricate choreography accompanied by a complex electronic musical soundscape complementing the energy and rhythm of the choreographic sequences.

In the introductory section, the movements are all power, strength and confidence. Positioned in a diagonal, the six female and a sole male dancer sport form-fitting costumes which emphasise the legs: mini-skirts paired with tube tops, knee-length skirts and matching vests, body suits with bell-bottoms. The male dancer wears a long black sleeveless cape-like garment, giving girth when pirouetting. Stiff ponytails and topknots complete the playful look.

To the sound of electronic beats, the dancers stamp their feet vigorously, moving forward in powerful tattu mettu footwork (a bharatanatyam motif which often appears in Kalpana’s work), advancing in a diagonal pattern, with the arms also outstretched in strong diagonals. Legs lift and step back in a low backward lunge, with the lower body now replicating the diagonal lines. The high-energy introduction winds to an end with each dancer using gestures to personify their character and pose as their superhero-god. Shiva takes the pose of Nataraja. Kannagi pulls off her anklet and hurls her breast. Arjuna points his bow and arrow. 

The music then changes to softer rhythms of piano and chiming sounds. The dancers bend in a wide chowka, descend to the floor, then suddenly twist and turn their backs, before turning their heads to gaze back at the audience. They take wide steps, turning to a side profile, heel posed on the floor, and shift forward in a half-squat, moving the torso in a sensuous swaying movement; forward and back, another motif which is present throughout the piece.

The dancers break off into duos and trios, interspersed with solos, each having the chance to impersonate their superhero-god, some in more subtle ways than others, before coming together again in an energetic finale which echoes the musical and choreographic patterns of the introductory sequence. 

An audience used to watching bharatanatyam will look for elements which are familiar to them and almost expected from a dancer initially trained in this classical form. These are there in small doses: a few soft and subtle mudras, the energetic tattu mettu of the opening sequence, the recurring strong diagonals of the outstretched arms and legs, and a few glimpses of familiar adavus. But the choreographic language here is rich and varied: an exploration of movement revealing a refreshing originality and creativity which best utilises the dancers’ own physical vocabularies and abilities. Each of the dancers demonstrated a compelling physicality of strength, high energy and agility, without any inequalities coming through. Though most are long-time Sutra veterans, a few are much younger and less experienced, but the best of each dancer’s abilities was brought out brilliantly in the choreography. 

The dancers were Rathimalar Govindarajoo (well-known to UK audiences as a former member of the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company), Divya Nair, Tan Mei Mei, Harenthiran Pulingam, Geethika Sree, Sivagama Valli Selvarajan and Vetheejay Tamil Selvam. 

The music contributed to the engaging and dynamic energy of the work by drawing the spectator deeper into the spectacle, the nine-beat cycle blending perfectly with the movement and somehow keeping the gaze riveted on the dancers and the patterns created on stage, ensuring there was never a dull moment.



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