Review: Breathing, Dancing Art at the Met Museum

One of the most ravishing dance events of recent years was the appearance by the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2015. The majesty of the Temple of Dendur met its match in the moving sculpture of the dancers Bijayini Satpathy and Surupa Sen. Now Satpathy is back, this time on her own as the MetLiveArts artist in residence, with performances last weekend and the next in galleries around the museum. Ravishment has returned.

In the series, called “Sima,” or “Thresholds,” Satpathy extends her solo explorations of classical Odissi style, pushing at its borders in response to the art around her, and she does so in collaboration with the composer Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy. On Saturday and Sunday, Satpathy offered two short pieces (each less than 15 minutes long) in two galleries, each incredible and incredibly different from the other.

“Taru,” Sanskrit for “Tree,” took place in an Islamic gallery, where carpets hung under an ornate ceiling from Spain. Narayanaswamy’s recorded score picked up on the Iberian theme, translating the Hindustani form tarana to classical guitar. Satpathy seemed inspired mostly by Islamic pattern making, fractal and tree-like.

One of the glories of Odissi style, as practiced by Nrityagram, is how its sinuous poses, its deep bends and curves, are sculptural but not static. Each moment is a perfect picture, but just when you think the shape is finished, it stretches, bends further, deepens. Near the start of “Taru,” Satpathy’s eyes directed attention to her hands, each of which opened like a blooming flower, one on top of the other in a rising pattern that seemed to draw up one of her legs to the opposite knee, a balanced pose that intensified as she leaned back.

Satpathy made this a principle of choreographic composition. She repeated a step in a circle, then added circles in her torso or head, then twisted those circles within circles into a spiral. The result was a sense of flow, a sense of long-form progression in repeated figures.

This was especially true as the music became rhythmic and she marked the meter as its cycles churned, slapping the floor with a bare foot, adding jumps at the ends of phrases that weren’t exclamation points but breaths. She played circles against diagonals and returned to rings at the close, rotating into a rear corner.

“Antaranga” – set in a modern and contemporary gallery in front of Sam Gilliam’s drape painting “Carousel State” – was strikingly modern, with Satpathy walking in like any other museum visitor, dressed in contemporary clothing and without the customary bells around her ankles. Yet it was also ancient, since within Narayanaswamy’s score of shuffling percussion and moaning was a recitation in ancient Greek (by Niti Bagchi) of Sappho’s Fragment 31.

That poem is about the physicality of erotic torment: the fluttering heart, the fire on the skin, the buzzing in the ears, the trembling all over. And this is what Satpathy embodied – now caressing the floor in languor, now twisting herself into knots. Hands that started by holding her head – that ancient and contemporary image of pain – later orbited around each other like mutually attracted bodies and shook to animate the fire.

The deepening was here, too, as she arranged her arms in a ring clasped at her fingers and stretched them behind her head – and then put this pose into motion, spinning on her knees. (When she faced away, her arms occluded her face, love eclipsing self.) But these progressions were more dramatic, following a woman’s emotions as she contemplated love, cradling it in her hands, then fighting it, lunging with a hand flexed in front , balancing and lengthening like a bow or arrow, retracting quickly like a matador.

Satpathy finished by standing to look at “Carousel State,” as if the dance had been the reaction of her character to the art, the memories and emotions it provoked in her mind. “Antaranga” and “Taru” were the responses of this superlative dancer and choreographer to the stimuli of the Met, her art enhanced by the museum’s and vice versa.

So it’s a pity that both performances seemed arranged more for the cameras documenting the dance than for the museum visitors cramped around the cameras to experience it live. In September, Satpathy will perform in the museum’s theater, but if you choose to go on Saturday, arrive early for a chance at a good spot.

Bijayini Satpathy

Through Saturday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; metmuseum.org.

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