Protima Gauri envisioned Nrityagram as not just a dance company but as a dance village. In 1990 her dream became a reality with an actual place where dancers train, work, and live together in a peaceful environment, away from the petty jealousies and stresses that plague so many dancers in the profession.
After Gauri’s death in 1998, Nrityagram’s top student and first featured soloist Surupa Sen became artistic director. She has been with Nrityagram for 16 years and will grace the stage in the company’s newest production, Sacred Space, at this year’s Spoleto Festival USA.
Sen spoke with City Paper from a hotel in Virginia, where they are performing two shows before coming to Charleston. One can hear the 16 years’ worth of communal, artistic living in her wise and deliberate speech. It’s easy to be spellbound by the idea of a village of dedicated dancers on the outskirts of Bangalore, India, working not for fame and riches or the title of prima, but rather for love of tradition, artform, and culture.
The dancers are at Nrityagram “to surrender to the art,” says Sen. Students do not pay for their tuition, food, or housing. They tend to their guru, which is their village, and in return they receive training. They work in the garden, library, office, dormitories, and kitchen and spend the majority of the day taking lessons in dance, martial arts, Sanskrit, literature, yoga, philosophy, and other artistic disciplines. “If you want something from the art, you have to give something back to it,” says Sen, who took a while to get used to the way the village works. “I used to question everything.” But as the years went by she began to quietly understand the meaning and the mission of Nrityagram. Dancers are constantly striving to form a relationship, she says, with the land, the school, the art, and themselves.
Sacred Space is rooted in the traditional Odissi style of performance, and, like other Nrityagram performances, relies heavily on the addition of dramatic lighting, live music, and many contemporary touches. Before the dance begins, a member of the company will give an explanation of gestures and expressions so that the audience can better appreciate the movement and the story behind it. A five-piece band performs the music of composer Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi, which utilizes vocals, violin, flute, Mardala, and Manjira.
Sacred Space explores the parallels between a dancer’s journey and the journey one takes as a spiritual being. The first half consists of Odissi temple rituals, and the second consists of more lyrical expressions of an ancient love ballad. Sen explains that the outside of a temple is highly decorated and ornate. Then further into the structure, in the innermost sanctum sanctorum, it is simple and nearly bare. As such, the first part of the program resembles the decorated outside, and as the program goes along, the dancer delves deep into the story and the experience. “The dancers take the audience along on the journey,” says Sen, “leading from many to one, from outside to inside.”
SACRED SPACE • Spoleto Festival USA • $30 • May 27, 29, 30 at 2 p.m., May 28, 31 at 8 p.m., • 1 hour 45 min • Emmett Robinson Theatre, Albert Simons Center, 54 St. Phillip St. • 579-3100