Nrityagram Dance Ensemble Artistic Director Surupa Sen wasn’t kidding when she said spirituality and sensuality are closely linked in Indian culture and Hindu religion. She introduces, in her silky voice, a prayer dance that involves “the molten lava that dances in all our hearts,” and later introduces a love ballad dance as “the climaxing of the spirit to become one with the Lord.” If only everyone’s church upbringing was that exciting…

The amount of spirit (of any kind) that comes across in the dancers’ eyes really is like a molten lava. Boundless energy and personality radiates from their gazes, glances, and smiles. Coyness, love, sorrow, jealousy, joy — all without a word, without a sound. These are not the sickly, icy-faced dancers whose emotion pours out through their body movements only. They have individual personality, too — each dancer seems to have her own interpretation of the emotion presented in the dance. They’re so captivating that one patron was overheard saying “a couple of times I felt like they were looking right at me!”

The dancers are Sen, Bijayini Satpathy, Pavithra Reddy, Ayona Bhaduri, Rasmi Raj, and Manasi Tripathy, with music composed by Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi and light designed by Nrityagram Director Lynne Fernandez.

There is an amazing four-piece band in the pit which accompanies the dances, sometimes at a frenetic pace. The violin, flute, mardala (the drum which accompanies Odissi dance), and intensely beautiful vocals (by Sampada Marballi) carry the audience on the journey from the outside to the inside of the temple — from the superficial to the internal. Marballi astoundingly seems to function without inhaling — maintaining a constant stream of forceful vocals, wrought with emotion and mood.

Fernandez’s light enhances the moods, with subtle hues in the first half moving into dramatic pools of light into the second. Each scene ends with the lights changing into richer focused hues and then fading away.

The first half of Sacred Space deals with more formal dances of prayer and Odissi temples; the second half with more interpretive dances of the love ballad Geet Govind.

The dancers’ hair is pulled tightly into buns, adorned with flowers. Their bodies are draped in bright silks — golden tones in the first half and rich jewel tones in the second. Their bare, painted feet slap against the floor and their ankle bracelets jingle. On occasion, their hands tremble like butterflies. They spring up and down off their knees as if they were operating on a trampoline. Their bindis remind you, as they invoke the spirits of the sacred bodies, as their eyebrows rise and fall, that these women probably are at a much higher spiritual place.

In the first half, the Odissi temple dances are precise and rhythmic, the dancers undulating, shaking, stomping, and striking poses from the temple walls. Each dancer takes her turn in the metaphorical spotlight. In the second half, movements are more deeply emotional and expressive, with intertwining arms and lavish spinning. Sen and Satpathy (who is the director of Nrityagram’s Odissi school) are the featured soloists in this half. Sen’s sorrowful face searches for answers as she dances to the lyrics (in Indian):

“I followed him
into the darkness of the forest
where he pierced my heart with
sweet arrows of passion
To whom will I turn now?
My beloved has deceived me.”

Satpathy displays a masculine charm and playfulness on her face as the male godhead Krishna, while still moving femininely, trying to coax Radha (Sen) back to “place your tender lotus feet upon my head/ and quell this burning fire,/ Beloved mine.”

The beautiful dancers of Nrityagram allow us into their temple, into their ritual, into their sacred space for a short time and it is amazing. It’s a journey for each person to take, to find their own higher level and celebrate.

SACRED SPACE • Spoleto Festival USA • May 29, 30 at 2 p.m. • $30 • Emmett Robinson Theatre, Albert Simons Center • 579-3100

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