Hagley Open Stage, Christchurch
10/10/2015 - 11/10/2015
Whitireia Performance Centre, 25-27 Vivian Street, Wellington
13/02/2016 - 14/02/2016
Fortune Theatre Studio, Dunedin
09/03/2016 - 09/03/2016
Q Theatre Loft, 305 Queen St, Auckland
06/10/2016 - 08/10/2016
NZ Fringe Festival 2016 [reviewing supported by WCC]
Are these dance compositions sacred? Or profane? Sringaram is a journey exploring some of the masterpieces called Javalis and Padams in contemporary times. They were short works performed at King’s courts and for private audiences by the devadasis (community of dancing women) accompanied by musicians. Sometimes inspired by their own lives, these dancers explored different emotions of love through their dance, literature & music, laying emphasis on abhinaya (expressions) and improvisation.
Premiering at The Body Festival, Christchurch ib 2014, Sringaram is a solo dance drama choreographed by Swaroopa Unni in Bharatanatyam – an Indian dance form. Music will include songs set in Carnatic style, which has been passed down through generations and additional music composed by Sandeep Pillai, a renowned composer from India. Suitable for a mature audience.
2016 – Tempo Dance Festival, Auckland
7.30pm on 6 October
6.30pm on 8 October
Indian classical dance , Dance ,
An exquisite performance full of surprises
Review by Jennifer Nikolai 07th Oct 2016
Sringaram – Dance of Love, is a solo female dance theatre performance, choreographed and performed by Swaroopa Unni with additional music by India’s Sandeep Pillai.
A gently lit blue sari drops, setting the scene for the journey ahead. She enters the stage gracefully, softly signing “Thaka dhimmi thaka jhannu” and introduces the audience to the Navarasas (nine expressions). This along with many other accessible theatrical conventions set through lighting, Carnatic music (traditional in raga, yet modern in lyrics) and voice –shape a beautifully crafted performance of the solo dance theatre work by Swaroopa Unni. “Sringaram” means love or erotic love. “Nayaki” is a Sanskrit term for heroine, in essence the protagonist, the main character we see unfolding in this delightful piece. In Sringaram – Dance of Love, Swaroopa Unni draws her audience in delicately, powerfully and immediately. She captures us initially with charm and innocence, a portrayal of young love, sweet and playful love. Then in the duration of her compelling performance flowing in unexpected directions, she connects even more deeply with her audience, keeping us intrigued – even surprised.
Swaroopa Unni has been researching her performance for well over a year (I would argue for her lifetime). Her research has driven the multiple layers in her dance theatre piece, layers of integrity, intention and advocacy. Nayaki, the protagonist that Swaroopa has created is a powerful, loveable character and an advocate for confident female archetypes. Structurally we are taken into the piece immediately with conventions that bridge her with her audience; summarizing in English, the narrative about to be performed through Bharatanatyam. We are repeatedly connected to the characters she plays, the scenarios revealed and her journey contemplating love. Her exquisite performance of gestures and her shifts between characters; playing narrator, protagonist and peripheral characters is extraordinary. And as we are taken through her beautifully structured story, we grow to love Nayaki.
And then Swaroopa surprises us with a twist to her tale. She reveals in Nayaki, a woman who makes her own choices, not encouraged by her community. She becomes the source of local gossip and still, she stays strong. She keeps to her values and lives the life that she wishes for herself. She admittedly reveals that she does not care about external judgement. She will live and let live. Swaroopa Unni personifies these qualities in a heroin through Bharatanatyam and asks for her audience to respect such characteristics in this strong, sanguine female. Nayaki’s heroism is explored through her relationship with love. She sings love. She dances love. She sings to herself, to her lover, she plays and then she laments. The tone of her commentary on love ranges from cheeky to sensual to confrontational and nostalgic but overall, her controversies toward love are resolved within Nayaki. Swaroopa Unni’s choices in Padams and Javalis (short musical compositions) mirror the range of relationships she has with intimacy, sensuality and betrayal. She loves, loses, leaves and matures within the performance; all improvised.
Yes, the entire performance is improvised for Swaroopa Unni. Improvisation as a form of playful interrogation with Bharatanatyam allows Unni the challenge she desires. Improvisation extends her relationship with duration so that there are no temporal expectations on how long or short a phrase, a narrative or a gesture should be. The phrasing of her choreography and her narrative structure are cajoled with every performance, never repeated. In the artist talk after this incredible, accessible performance, she invited the audience to experience each one of her performances in the Tempo Dance Festival; admitting playfully, that no two performances would ever be repeated. Extraordinary!
Swaroopa Unni has resided in Dunedin for six years and in that time she has exposed her community in Dunedin to Bharatanatyam in a manner that is exceptional. She founded her own dance school, Natyaloka School of Indian Classical Dance in 2011. Natyaloka is the only school in Otago, New Zealand, that imparts education in Indian traditional dance forms, Bharathanatyam and Mohiniyattam. She has exposed students and audiences to her lenghty research project, to her love of dance, to forms that she admits are increasingly accessible in New Zealand and she does so with commitment and integrity by asking herself “What is Bharathanatyam?” She is learning, unlearning and re-learning her form, through her confident narrative, her strong female voice and her integrity as an artist constantly evolving.
There is another performance of Sringaram – Dance of Love in the Tempo Dance Festival on Saturday 8 October at 6:30pm. As well, learn an excerpt of Sringaram – Dance of Love at a Bharatanatyam workshop led by Swaroopa Unni on Saturday 8 October.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Emotive, animated, visceral, alluring - extraordinary
Review by Jennifer Aitken 10th Mar 2016
I have seen Swaroopa Unni perform a number of times and I know her to be a powerful, engaging and graceful performer. This being said, Unni’s performance of Sringaram manages to completely exceed my (already high) expectations in every way.
Inherently challenging in its nature Sringaram is an exploration of love in the life of the devadasi. Traditionally speaking the devadasi were girls dedicated to the service and worship of a deity or temple. Devadasi performed rituals within the temple and dedicated their lives to mastering the Indian dance tradition Bharatanatya. Historically, devadasi were afforded a high status within society however the imposition of British rule in India in the mid-nineteenth century turned the world of the devadasi upside down.
In Sringaram, Unni takes on the character of Nayika, a fictitious character through which she is able to explore the feelings, emotions and experiences of devadasi women through the past and present of the Bharatanaya tradition. Unni’s performance is divided into 9 shorter dances, or scenes, each an exploration of love (or the rejection of love) at different moments throughout the devadasi tradition.
What is especially clever about this structure is that Unni incorporates a spoken prelude to each piece. In these moments we are drawn into the world she is imagining, we are introduced to some of the more mimetic movements, and we are allowed the opportunity to fully submerge ourselves in the narrative qualities of the dances. It is the addition of these spoken introductions that helps to create a piece – that although beautiful accomplished in its own right – becomes instantly accessible to a multi-cultural audience.
Once opened up to the ideas and themes within each piece the audience are much more prepared to experience the emotive, animated and visceral nature of Unni’s dancing. Throughout Sringaram Unni inhabits the changing world of the devadasi, she is deeply seductive yet she also seems completely untouchable. Unni toys with our hearts as she teases and lures us into Nayika’s world.
The intimacy of the Fortune Theatre Studio was perfect for Sringaram. Unni is a gifted storyteller she manages to paint vivid picture for the audience through her movements and words – filling the empty space with characters and spirits from a faraway world (both geographically and historically speaking). Her unflappable focus helps us to see the men around Nayika, seducing her, taunting her, loving her and exposing her.
Sringaram is an immersive performance, it is visceral and sensual, both complex and subtle in its beauty. Sadly Unni is only performing Sringaram once as part of the Dunedin Fringe Festival, but I will be keeping my eyes peeled for more work from this incredibly talentd performer. If the idea of traditional Indian dance sounds challenging to you I urge you to step out of your comfort zone – Unni will take you to times and places you never knew existed, she opens you up to a way of life long forgotten. I cannot express how grateful I am to have been allowed the opportunity to experience Sringaram.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Subtle and beautiful reworking of Devadasi dancing
Review by Tania Kopytko 24th Feb 2016
Sringaram – Dance of Love is intimate dance theatre, as it would have been at the time of the Devadasi, the female temple or salon dancers of a long and ancient Indian tradition, which was sadly silenced by colonialism and ensuing internal Indian political and social changes.
Choreographer and solo performer Swaroopa Unni uses this broader, lesser known and ancient female tradition to present her work “Sringaram – Dance of Love”. I imagine its content is still controversial within some areas of Indian society and its diaspora and saw this as a brave work.
Unni gave a subtle and beautiful performance of Bharatanatyam genre such as Javali and Padam (which address love or a beloved), all written between 1400 and 1900, including some recomposed in a more contemporary style. These dance and song “sonnets” told different sides of the courtesan’s story and provided the programme structure. Unni created the fictitious role of Nayika, a courtesan dancer, and this character linked each dance poem with a narrative largely in English, telling us not only how Nayika felt about her lovers, or her betrayal by a girlfriend, but also the communities critical reactions to Nayika. Addressing love itself was through a more contemporary performance behind a veil, where inspired by a 16th century Padam, Nayika dances sensuously for her lover. This Padam was recomposed by Sandeep Pillai. There were some lighting and technical hitches on this opening night, which unfortunately made the shadow stronger than the veiled dance, but the effect of the slow sensuous dance behind the blue gauze of a sari suspended from the ceiling, was beautiful.
Based in Dunedin, Swaroopa Unni is a strong, confident and mature performer whose mastery of her craft easily portrays technical subtlety, beauty and detail. This show is an example of the amazing work that is arising from our complex contemporary and multi-cultural NZ society. I am looking forward to more from this artist.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Ardent love in dance honoring the devadasis
Review by Emily Napolitano 12th Oct 2015
Sringaram is a solo show, choreographed and danced by Dunedin based Swaroopa Unni. It brings to life the fictitious character of Nayika, a strong heroine who experiences the range of emotions that make up love. Each short work is performed to music composed between the 15th and 19th centuries.
The subject matter is intensely provocative, as Nayika shamelessly entertains her lover while her husband is away. She flirts, entices, and cajoles him. She even locks her father-in-law in his room so as to be uninterrupted while her lover is with her. Nayika is a strong heroine, and makes no secret of her affairs. Her character is a refreshing change from the lies and attempts at covering up that we experience today with our various politicians and celebrities.
The evening is one of juxtapositions. The stage holds a single long scarf suspended from ceiling to floor, yet the dancer is gorgeously costumed and bejewelled. Bharatanatyam is an unhurried, graceful art form for expressing Nayika’s wide range of ardent emotions – from coquetry to jealousy, passion to anger, and tenderness to vicious gossip. The decorous stylized dance form contrasts piquantly with the provocative material.
As a dancer, Swaroopa has an unhurried graceful style; her movements are expressive, fluid, clean and clear. There is no wasted motion – Bharatanatyam is made up of a complex vocabulary, every intricate hand gesture and subtle eye roll has a definite meaning in the language of the dance. It is a tradition that can undoubtedly fill a lifetime of study.
Each of the eleven short pieces is explained in the program, and Swaroopa also describes the language behind her stylized movements between each dance. At one and a half hours, her show is on the long side for a Western audience who might not be educated enough in the tradition to fully appreciate its subtlety; however it is a vivid performance and beautifully danced.
The history behind Sringaram is quite fascinating. What we think of as traditional Bharatanatyam dance is actually only about sixty years old. It grew out of the much more ancient tradition of the devadasi community of dancing women. These women were strong, wealthy and independent, and took many lovers. Modern India banned the devadasis from dancing in 1947, and suppressed their practice. Bharatanatyam replaced the devadasi tradition, keeping the costumes and the movement vocabulary but erasing all erotic elements. I am pleased to report that today, through the work of dedicated people like Swaroopa, scholars and dancers are slowly bringing the devadasis back to life. As a body of work, Sringaram will deepen and grow in intensity as Swaroopa continues to delve into the rich history of the devadasi community.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer