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Print Version

Satvika - Forms of the Formless
Choreographer: Vivek Kinra
Dancers: Mudra Dance Company

at Whitireia Performance Centre, 25-27 Vivian Street, Wellington
From 25 May 2013 to 26 May 2013
[2 hrs incl intermission of 15 mins]

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan, 26 May 2013

A colleague in dance history, Anne Middelboe Christensen, wrote, a propos of Danish dance but equally applicable to performances elsewhere…
“The history of dance is as mutable as it is marvellous…the archived documentation of dance is still typically reduced to a programme full of hints, a grandiose press release, a crumpled poster, maybe an interview on the flyer and a couple of judgmental reviews, and then perhaps some information about an in-house video recording that no-one can get hold of anyway. What actually happened on the stage is seldom revealed.”
Furthermore we all know that “what happened” at any given performance will be told in versions and variations galore, depending on who's doing the telling. Time will embellish and shape those impressions, and memories do what they need to do to survive. So let me tell you what I think happened at Satvika on Saturday night...
Vivek Kinra led 15 members of his company, Mudra, through a programme of ten dances, including full group works, quintets, trios and solos. Bharata Natyam is an established tradition of classical Indian dance. Its heritage of more than 2000 years nonetheless includes a chapter of near-decline during the British Raj era.  The subsequent restoration of the dance form can be seen as a kind of allegorical narrative within the story of India's independence... one of the history plays. The partition of India and Pakistan at that time gave rise to wounds that remain open and festering still today ... one of the tragedies.   
Nothing so simple in India of course, but one of the stories told of the revival of Bharata Natyam involves Anna Pavlova visiting India in 1920s. Her fascination with Indian arts – music, painting, textiles and dance – inspired her to choreograph her own work, but her genuine interest in the dance technique and practice also helped to elevate the local standing of the dance which was then able to emerge from its clandestine status and find vigour for new pathways. The young Rukmini Devi took inspiration from Pavlova's genuine interest, and devoted her own long life to establishing a context for the development of Bharata Natyam and related arts of music, singing, drumming, as well as song texts in Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu among many languages.  Devi founded  in Tamil Nadu, the centre and school of Kalakshetra, which has earned renown for its calibre in the century since.  Vivek Kinra is an honoured graduate of Kalakshetra, so we have in Vivian St. on Saturday night, a danced assurance of something mutable and marvellous.  
Kinra's arrival in Wellington 23 years ago has seen the steady growth of his Academy where by now thousands of students have learned the discipline, beauty and ecstasy of a dance form that prizes geometric partition of space, mathematical division of time, poetic observations of landscape, tales of trickery and heroism, faltering and faith, and indicates devoted allegiance to any and many of the 650,000 gods in the Hindu pantheon.
Movements of the dance may be beguilingly slow, then trippingly swift, and the grounded sense of balance needed to deliver these adjacently is one of the most admirable aspects of the art that Kinra introduces as “giving form to the formless.”  The rigours of training lead to the freedom of performance, and that is picked up kinaesthetically by an attentive audience.  We each have a body. This is one of the ways in which it can be moved. 
Among the dancers in Mudra are a number born in New Zealand, in families of Gujarati origin. Others are of Fijian connection.  Most of the dancers are students in Bachelor of Commerce and Administration course at VUW, or still at secondary school. Their dance training makes huge demands of time and energy but will be helping their studies, regardless of subject.
In Saturday night's audience, and therefore an intrinsic part of “what happened” at the performance, was Jean Watson, that indomitable, heroic, selfless, dedicated Wellington woman who has established and maintained, through a trust in support for 25 years, Karunai Illam, a home for destitute children in Tamil Nadu, offering them a place to live and a chance at education. The quiet story of Jean's determination to surmount obstacles across decades of this endeavour could be choreographed into a dance drama of memorable proportion.  It would need to be stylized, but would still ring true to the force of good over evil.
It is deeply assuring to sense the symmetry of Vivek's and Jean's generosity between two countries.  Lately, Bharata Natyam classes are being offered to the children at the Illam. That's a small miracle, more than Jean would have dreamt possible at the start, when sheer survival was the dictating rhythm of the place. It's heartening to report that Vivek received an MNZM in recent Honours awards here. We should salute Jean Watson too.
Another audience member, Barbara Lyon, in charge of Ephemera at the Alexander Turnbull Library, was pleased to find that attending the performance revived memories of her visit to India decades ago … to encounter the Sanskrit in some song texts, and to observe the personality of each dancer that brings such delightful contrast, more so than the wide range of physiques, to deliver “the same” dancing differently. 
Barbara will deposit her programme in Ephemera at the Turnbull, and ensure that Satvika will be on record to help some discerning future visitor to the library keen to glimpse, maybe 23 years from now, what dancing in Wellington was like in 2013. Ephemera, because it exists and somebody bothers to contribute deposits there, ensures that “mutable and marvellous” need not necessarily be ephemeral. 

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 Toby Behan