Dancer/choreographer Surupa Sen (Bangalore, India) will investigate the possibilities of expanding traditional Odissi choreography, combining a technical expertise sourced from the form’s esoteric roots with a modern, multicultural perspective.
Surupa Sen is the Artistic Director and choreographer of Nrityagram in India. Sen was the first student to graduate from Nrityagram where she studied Odissi dance with the architect of Odissi, Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra and Protima Gauri, founder of Nrityagram. As a child she studied Bharatanatyam to which she attributes her pre-occupation with form and line. Attracted to choreography from her first exposure to western makers of dances, she has worked with dancers and choreographers from across the world.
Sen has choreographed five full-length Ensemble works for Nrityagram, which are Sri: In Search of the Goddess (2000), Ansh (2004), Pratima: Reflection (2008), and Saṃhära (2012.) She has also choreographed two full-length duet shows, Saṃyoga (2012) and Songs of Love and Longing (2013). Honours include the Raza Foundation Award (2006), the Yagnaraman Award (2008) and Nritya Choodamani from Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai (2011).
BAC Story by Wally Cardona
Aug 5, 2016
When BAC asked me to write a piece on the residency of Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy, I immediately said “yes” because I’d seen the two of them perform – as Nrityagram – and it’s embedded in my memory. I’d never want to miss an opportunity like this. - Wally Cardona
Rudolf Nureyev Studio, 3/8/16
S = Surupa Sen
B = Bijayini Satpathy
The room itself feels contained.
The music of Hossein Ali Zadeh (not “Indian” music)
S dances alone, maybe 30 seconds. B watches and responds “It seems like it needs…” (does some small movement)
S repeats second time. Seems deeper, the face more expressive. True? Or is it just what happens when seeing something a second time?
These eyes are always seeing SOMEthing.
Note: S has tape on her foot, the therapeutic kind.
B now dances. More attack, sharper edges. Crap. I’m comparing. Is it just what happens when seeing something back to back? Go with it…
S: a constant supple give at what might be identified as the end of something.
All parts of the body stay constantly full. Filled with what? Where do their bodies hurt?
They stop. A workfulness appears when they stop…but when moving, their bodies seem to take such pleasure out of dancing. Or do their bodies take pleasure in working, in being called upon?
S pulls out a mat and sits. Deep space. Am I watching her sit on “What comes next?”
B says to me “We like to finish each day practicing Odissi.” Was that NOT Odissi?
S dances first:
That crazy stomp/slap of the foot…How is that possible?(see tape on foot)
At every moment, an altered body
Insane stamina. How long has she danced this dance?
“Pure Dance” vs. “Storytelling” vs. Dancing Purely…
B dances next:
Squat jumps, back bends, impossible balances, vicious leg kicks, on the floor one moment, flying in the air the next… But nothing ever calls attention to itself. At any moment, during any and all of these actions, there is an absolute stillness.
Bijayini: For us, generally, if we’re not talking personally, maximum stress is in the legs, in the quadriceps, the hips. That’s where it is.
Surupa: Because you always stand with your weight planted, very solid, and hold that position while the upper body constantly moves with torso isolation.
Bijayini: Traditionally, there wasn’t any cooling down. That was never taught to us, so there were a lot of injuries. Because Orissa is a very warm and humid place, the dancers, when young, can dance without struggles.
Surupa: But if you’re not careful, there’s a lot of stress in your knees and your back, especially from the hard floors. And if you get tired and start to push, if you’ve been hammering away for 25 years…your body is going to say you’re not meant to be doing this like that.
Bijayini: The good part about most of our classical dances is that we have the Abhinaya, the expressional part of it all. But we do have pure dance in India, like the first dance Surupa did: movement vocabulary threaded together to match the melody. That is hard. Very hard.
Surupa: Pure dance does not have a story.
Bijayini: But even in pure dance, though there’s no narrative, it always dwells on joy and love. When you talk about emotional connection, this is something we always have in an Indian context. If it is a narrative, then there are the words, the poems, the context or the characters that give you the emotional connections. If a non-narrative - which is just vocabulary - then we practice and practice and practice, to find the source emotion of that physical movement.
Surupa: We don’t have to give it a word.
Bijayini: We have that connectedness but what we project through it is a different emotion, based on joy and love. Even when practicing little alphabets as our skill practice, it is always through joy and love. I would never do it as an exercise of just shape and form.
Surupa: In each of the forms there is an inherent personality within the form because it has developed out of a particular region where there is a primary deity, and the dance was offered as an invocation to the chosen deity. For every dancer, your being is the representation of the feminine energy yearning to unite with the infinite god head and that god head is considered male. Whether you are a male or female dancer, you dance as if you are longing to unite with that deity.
We’re not thinking of that character but the whole form is developed out of that faith. For us, the pre-given condition is that you are a devotee. You’re not just doing an action. You’re doing the dance as a sacred art, as a devotee, so everything is an offering. And the purest form of offering is without a sense of self. When you bring the sense of self into the offering, then you bring - as far as the concept of Hindu faith is concerned – you bring ego into it. So you try to disassociate yourself from the ego by making a pure dance offering.
Exactly like a devotee going to the temple… As you go from the exterior to the interior of the temple, the journey is as an individual who is alone. Hinduism is not a congregation faith. It is one person, in search. So what they do in a temple is represent the journey of a devotee. Outside is full of sculptures and many things; the second layer is slightly less ornate; and by the time you reach the inner sanctum, there is nothing. It is absolutely devoid of anything. It is a very small space so you and the deity have an individual intimate connection.
The dance is meant like that too… We begin with an invocation, to create an atmosphere where we can all start the journey. The second dance will be an ornate piece, where we do a pure dance offering. It is not meant to tell my story or anybody’s story. It is just me and my body offering to you with my spirit. Therefore…that joy. In the third dance, we’ll start to sing the songs of various aspects of the deities; and in India all deities are very human and have human stories. Then you go into the next level where, hopefully, in that transition, you have completely immersed yourself in the journey and have offered yourself up. So by the time you do the last dance, which is called the dance of salvation, or moksha, there is nothing of you left. You have worked it out. And when you finally go there, you and the spirit have become one.
Each dance has a very specific place in the repertoire. And you are meant to find that space as you go along, so that by the time you have finished, you are Puja, or prayer.
It is a reflection of life. And what you are trying to find in life…is emerging in your dance.
Surupa: Right now, at BAC, I have given myself a particular exercise: to simply explore different sounds. I’m not trying to make a dance that will fit into my repertoire…at all.
This is, for me, to learn something. It might not even be worth watching. But that’s what I’m doing.
Wally Cardona is a choreographer, dancer, and teacher living in Brooklyn.
Upcoming page photo: Deepak Mudgal / Slide photos: Uma Dhanwatey / Bio photo: Rupert Lorhaldar