Stopping Time (Shantala Shivalingappa, Trisha Brown, and Steven McRae)

In the busy topography of New York dance, October is like an avalanche. You try to stay one step ahead, but at some point it just roars over you, leaving you in a messy heap somewhere near Halloween. It’s impossible to see everything, and even more impossible to process everything one sees. But certain performances rise to the surface of one’s consciousness, stopping time, if only for a moment.

One of these performances, for me, was Shantala Shivalingappa’s evening-length solo “Swayambhu.” Shivalingappa is a practitioner of kuchipudi, a classical dance form from southern India (Andhra Pradesh, to be precise), which combines narrative dance (or a kind of danced mime), devotion, abstract movement, and complex rhythms of the feet (accented by ankle bells). Like all Indian dance, it involves every part of the body, from the tips of the toes to the eyes, eyebrows, head and hands. The torso is fluid and strong, the arms light and expressive, the face (and gaze) constantly animated. Kuchipudi also has the characteristic of being lushly three-dimensional, as the body torques and bends (or takes to the air) in sculptural shapes that can be admired (and viscerally felt) from all directions. The dancer creates a multi-faceted world onstage and fully inhabits it. The evening’s dances are subdivided into various elements: a homage to a god can be followed by a devotional song, then a rhythmic section in which the dancer enters into a lively, seemingly spontaneous conversation with the percussionists (there is always a live orchestra, and some improvisation), the re-enactment of a poem or story from Hindu mythology, a prayer. As Shivalingappa explains on her website (, the aim is a kind of “alchemy, a fleeting moment in which the veil of illusion falls, and reveals the infinite.”

At least, that is the hope. As with flamenco, kuchipudi performances are built upon this aspiration toward transcendence, the magical moment in which the viewer (and perhaps the performer) forget time and place, and lose themselves in an overwhelming sensation, never to be repeated. One is swept up on the currents of admiration, emotion, and incredulity, and all judgment melts away. Come to think of it, this is true in ballet as well, and Cunningham, and any art form performed at the highest level; one seeks that state in which the little voice inside, the one that never stops, is finally silent, and one simply is. A kind of momentary nirvana, perhaps. Needless to say, it doesn’t happen very often, even in performances that are very, very good. But I came very close to it at various moments in Shivalingappa’s performance at the Skirball Center for the Arts (as part of the World Music Institute’s “Dancing the Gods” festival) on Oct. 30. “Swayambhu,” the title of the evening, means “that which appears spontaneously”; again, Shivalingappa’s website explains that the term sometimes refers “the spontaneous and sudden experience of an altered sense of reality.”

Shivalingappa fully embodies these qualities. A slight, striking girl of Indian descent who grew up in Paris in a home filled with music and dance (her mother, Savitry Nair, was a dancer), she has long arms and a slender, beautifully-proportioned frame and head. In addition to a crisp, clean technique in everything she does—and the lightest, most surprising of jumps—she seems able to perform feats of shape-shifting which alter one’s perception of her from moment to moment. With an internal flip of the switch, she transforms herself from the laughing Shiva—standing in contraposto on one leg with the other held aloft in attitude, while nonchalantly holding out a hand, fingers resting elegantly on the air—to an evil demon—curled lips, flaming eyes, rigid pose—shocked into defeat by Shiva’s smile. Pina Bausch, with whom Shivalingappa danced for a several years (you may remember her in “Bamboo Blues”) saw this quality, and put it to use in works like “Nefès” and “Bamboo Blues”). She is utterly natural and true in whatever role she is playing at each given moment, while at the same time remaining entrancingly musical and graceful throughout. At the beginning of this program, she spirals onstage mid-jump, hitting the top of her trajectory just as one of the musicians rings a bell. She is one of those dancers—like New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck—that give the impression that the music emanates from her body. She is not trying to be one with the music; she is the music. In “Bamboo Blues,” Bausch had her perform a little “Indian” dance (probably improvised) for one of the men while he just stood there, entranced, after which he asked her to do it again, to which she obliged. One would like to do the same.

The goddess sleeps

To all this, she adds an element of surprise. In “Kirtanam,” based on a romantic poem about the Goddess Padmavati and her husband Lord Venkateshwara, she re-enacts a scene: in silence, the goddess walks out with a folded blanket in her arms, prepares the bed for herself and her husband, pulling his loving arm around her waist, arranging herself in a beautiful reclining position (see above). Then, still in silence, her foot twitches, she shivers, and she awakes in a wild-eyed panic. She has dreamt that she and her husband are having a quarrel. Slowly, her waking consciousness returns; she looks toward her husband, still sleeping by her side. She realizes her mistake, but the dream still haunts her. She rubs her skin with lotion to calm herself, then embraces him lovingly and falls back asleep. All this happens in silence. As the music begins, dawn breaks and the goddess awakes; she recalls her dream, reflecting upon her night visions. Now the story becomes more abstract, more universal, as she weaves the mime into a dance, its elements fragmented and re-framed as pure movement. The whole piece is mesmerizing, the shapes stylized and yet natural, the smile that blossoms across her face as her reality takes hold utterly blissful.

This mastery of means was contrasted by the simplicity of the final piece on the program, “Pasayadân,” a prayer evoking, in Shivalingappa’s words, “divine grace and blessings, peace and joy.” It begins with a lilting flute melody, as the dancer enters with a candle in her hands. She bends down and places it on the stage and begins to sing, in a child-like, slender voice: trained in the style and pleasing, but not highly polished or powerful. The musicians watch her as she moves slowly, and sings, almost to herself. The nakedness of the voice and the simplicity of the melody are all the more moving after the virtuosity one has just witnessed. As the music intensifies, she begins to dance more and more quickly, entering a kind of ecstasy. The curtain behind her trembles, and suddenly she spins off and disappears.

Here she is in Gamaka, which she performed at Jacob’s Pillow in 2009: Shantala Shivalingappa in “Gamaka”

Speaking of musicality, there were two moments in the first three programs of Fall for Dance this year that for me stood out from all the others. Neither was one of the more flashy or “important” pieces on the programs. The first, was Trisha Brown’s “Rogues,” on the first program of the fall dance festival at City Center (where all the tickets go for $10). The second, Steven McRae’s “Something Different,” on the third. They were quite different, but shared a few aspects.

The first was their small scale. “Rogues” is a new duet by Brown for two dancers in her company (Neal Beasley and Lee Serle, a guest performer). “Something Different” is a solo created by Steven McRae, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet in London. Both have a nonchalance about them, and a sense of ownership—of the body, of the music, of the stage. Both feel un-formulaic and relaxed, each in its own way.

In “Rogues,” the two men, one more compact, the other long and lean, run through the kind of phrases that seem to trip off of Brown’s tongue so easily: a looping curve of the hand, a swing of the arm, a plié on a twisted leg, a little shoulder shrug. The men are in semi-unison, though one lags begin the other just a little. But this is not a forced effect; it’s clear that both are following internal rhythms that are just a little bit different. Their joints are loose and free, and there is a sense of the pleasure and release of moving one’s body. As often with Brown, there’s that sense of West-Coast dispassion and rule-breaking that can feel so liberating about her work (or, at times, can move one to boredom). The duet was not too drawn out, not too repetitive, with just the right touch of humor and intelligence. It cleared the mind.

McRae’s solo, on the other hand, came as a total surprise. McRae, a rising principal dancer at the Royal, is not so well-known here, but he has been making waves in England, both in the classical repertoire and in new work. He was a crazed, tapping Mad Hatter in Christopher Wheeldon’s new “Alice in Wonderland.” Clement Crisp, of the Financial Times, recently described his performance in “Sleeping Beauty” thus: “a technical mastery that defies superlatives—a brilliantly talented young man assert[ing] the power of dance to define the grandest possibilities of the human frame.” Precision, virtuosity, intelligence, imagination. All these came through in his solo, which was, however, not in the balletic idiom; in fact, it was a tap routine.

McRae has a great face, slightly devilish with dark circles around the eyes, and the decadent, clever look of a slightly cruel practical joker. The tap solo starts off slow, as if he’s taking his time to drink in the effect of his footwork on the crowd. “Yeah, I’m tap dancing,” he seems to be saying. Just as this threatens to grow dull, the lights come on and he takes off in a dizzyingly fast routine that takes in the entire stage, covering vast expanses of space with each leap or traveling series of taps. Meanwhile, his entire body responds to the music, which is Benny Goodman’s rendition of “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing).” Here and there, he inserts a ballet step: a beautiful arabesque, a jump over his own leg, a fast series of pirouettes with one leg bent in front of him in attitude. But never does the ballet take over—he’s not privileging one style over the other, just spicing things up with some tricks he knows. His hands, either crossed at his chest or dancing at his side, are marvelously alive, as are his eyes. He may not be the world’s most virtuosic tapper, but what a showman.

You can watch an excerpt here.

On the same program, the Australian Ballet performed Glen Tetley’s 1973 ballet “Gemini.” With its mix of modern dance and ballet, and its bombastic Hans Henze score, it feels dated, but it has the virtue of showing off the qualities of the four dancers, who get quite a workout. The Aussies are wonderfully unmannered performers. Lana Jones, especially, looked powerful and lithe in her golden-hued unitard, moving with cool and athletic assurance, but also meltingly erotic in her almost Kamasutra-esque pas de deux with Rudy Hawkes. Hawkes, in turn, treated her with the utmost tenderness and rapt attention, which he channeled into a creamy, muscular legato. All four dancers were impressive and made one look forward to the company’s upcoming visit to NewYork next June, when they will perform at Lincoln Center. You can find more informatino here:

Next up: Looking forward to American Ballet Theatre’s fall season at City Center (see featuring performances of Alexei Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas,” Merce Cunningham’s “Duets,” Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room,” and Paul Taylor’s “Black Tuesday.”

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Marina Harss is a translator and dance writer in New York City. Recent translations include Elisabeth Gille’s ”The Mirador” and Alberto Moravia’s ”Two Friends.” Her dance writing has appeared in The N more


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