Drive East
Bijayini Satpathy by Anubhava. Photo: Navatman

Drive East

Bijayini Satpathy


Z Space Below Theatre

San Francisco, Calif.

Aug. 15, 2019

Even if your beat is strictly limited to ballet, you can’t write about dance in the San Francisco Bay Area without running into the classical dances of India. In the case of Drive East, Indian Classical Dance–to exploit the analogy–ran into me! Thanks to the efforts of an intrepid colleague, I was escorted to my seat by a cordial woman dressed in a sari suffused with the scent of rose essence, to find myself facing not East but North, opposite a stage bathed in purple light.  My few encounters with Indian dance have left me impressed with the prettiness of costumes, color, makeup, and poses, but wondering what element or quality might transport “pretty” to beautiful, if indeed the two are not mutually exclusive. In driving west from Oakland, I found “Drive East” in San Francisco, and in Drive East, I found beauty, both elemental and qualitative.

The performance was programmed into a two-city season, the first in New York and the second in San Francisco. Here, Bijayini Satpathy dances four pieces, each articulating an aspect of or excerpt from classical Indian culture, such as traditional nritta technique in “Mangalacharan,” symbolism in “Srimati,” a love ballad in “Sakhi He,” and the thrilling cadence of the epic poem, “Sita Haran.”

“Mangalacharan” by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra has been restaged by Satpathy. In a stunning cream-colored costume detailed in red and gold, she captures our attention with a sculptural turn, a human work of art as if mounted on a revolving platform. She hovers into a first position grand plié to advance from upstage to down. The plié deepens as she scatters rose petals along her path. She is showing us “Nritta,” the taxonomy of classical forms. A stamped foot lunge punctuates a retiré. In contrast to the stamp comes the double helix of control and undulation that has her body and all of its visible parts melting like an intoxicating emolument from one movement into the next. Deliberate and softened runs slow to a pause where deft explications by hands and fingers trace now-overt, now-hidden track changes from a taffy-like spine. Attitudes make for joyful sacrament. Eyes follow hands like a magic tutelary to show that coquetry need not rely on helplessness, but instead tantalize with certitude.

Using poses inflected against imagined ornamented temple walls “Srimati,” by Surupa Sen, celebrates the flowering of beauty of youth. An instrument bellowing like a ram’s horn thins into piccolo, then softens into clarinet. It squires movement which foot press impulses tip side to side, across the petal-flecked floor. The presses resolve into accents and then a manège where arms accentuate high and low.

“Saki He,” also by Sen, is a love song about the amorous Radha and Krishna, based on the 12th century ballad “The Geet Govind” by the poet Jayadeva. Here poses trend more balletic, offering an opening arabesque and turns to voiceover spoken word accompaniment. Piercing flute notes guide serpentine steps through an imagined forest where the lovers will seek each other to express longing in shy stroking movements, and then a dance of surrender amid peals of passionate laughter and tinkling bells.

“Sita Haran” by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra captures the abduction of Sita in the epic poem “Ramayana,” as related by its author, Tulsida’s Ram Charit Manas. In this piece, which weaves the classical nritta with the theatrical abhinaya, each body part gleams weaponized, as legs take flight in grand jeté, arms ward off impending threats, and truncated movements resolve in a sixth position faceted profile passé, while a flexed hand warns of imminent incursions.

If your acquaintanceship with Indian culture is limited to enjoying savory platefuls of Tikka Masala, participating in matriarchal-graced group hugs, or vacationing via Yoga-sponsored tours, there may be no better way to delve deeper than to experience the scintillating confluence of art and history that the Navatman/Driving East artists bring to the stage.

Toba Singer

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.