In Hinduism, incense is often burned as a sacrificial offering to the gods. Saturday night, the sweet smell wafted from the Kelly-Strayhorn stage, giving the theater a temple-like feel. Two large statues sat on either side of the stage, reminiscent of forms carved on ancient temple walls.
Odissi, an eastern style of Indian dance, is also considered a form of worship, or puja, to the gods. With movement originally derived from sculptures in temples, the ancient dance form has retained its roots in spirituality.
Sreyashi Dey, founder and choreographer of Srishti Dances of India, presented “India – A Light Within,” on a stage not unfamiliar to her. Although now residing in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she performed for nearly a decade in Pittsburgh, annually until 2007 at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.
Dey turned what is normally considered a solo form of worship into a unique quartet perfectly suited for a proscenium space. She says, “As we move through time and make the dance more of an art form, the solo has to translate into many dancers.”
In addition to creating multiple group dances, Dey collaborated with photographer Charlee Brodsky and poet Zilka Joseph on this latest project. After working for several years on a photographic project based on the hand gestures, or mudras, in Indian dance, Brodsky traveled to India with Dey in 2007. Inspired by the trip, both agreed the photos needed voice.
“Zilka’s words have given voice to the images and a better understanding of what they mean,” Brodsky says.
Joseph introduced each of the five dances with a live reading, bringing meaning to each piece. Simultaneously, Brodsky’s images moved across a large screen at the back of the stage, framed by the words of the poetry and choreographed to the traditional sounds of Indian chant.
Add the dancers to the mix and the result was hypnotic. Typical of the style, the movement was articulated from the eyes of the dancers to the tips of their toes. Unison and moments of stillness had the perfected precision that only comes from hours of careful work in the studio. Unlike other forms of Indian dance with a more restricted torso, Odissi allows for breath of movement to wave through the upper body. “It is known for its lyricism and graceful nature,” Dey says.
The complexity of the rhythms showed off the dancers’ musicality. Feet clapped the beats in intricate and fast moving tempos, while bright colors reflecting off the scrim enhanced the communicative and often smiling eyes of the performers.
The highlight of the evening came with the standout duet between eighteen-year-old twin daughters of Dey, Ishika and Kritika Rajan. The two have performed nationally and internationally with their devoted and talented mother, receiving acclaim for their “technical perfection.” In their signature duet, the two entranced the audience with exactness and commitment to the movement.
“The dance is complex and layered…it can be viewed at different levels…the deeper you go, the better you understand the spiritual meaning,” Dey says. One could sense that each performer understood the art form at profound levels. It isn’t often that this kind of harmonious collaboration graces the Pittsburgh stage. We look forward to what Srishti brings us next.