at the Blue Rider Theatre

June 21

Krithika Rajagopalan’s art, on exhibit one evening only during the “Nights of the Blue Rider” festival, is unlikely to resemble anything you’ve seen before. It combines music, poetic texts, dramatic story telling, and dance as no single Western form does. Not only that, but the truncated and fractured traditions of mainstream U.S. culture mean that we don’t have a prayer of producing religious art.

Bharata natyam, the 3,000-year-old Indian style of dance that Rajagopalan performs, is foreign in other ways, too. The music sounds strange to Western ears; the language is often Sanskrit, which no one speaks anymore; the unfamiliar stories are of gods and goddesses, in whom we have no faith; and the hand gestures, the mudras, are a complete language in themselves, a language known only to the initiated. Nevertheless, this centuries-old form lives and breathes; its characters are as real and available as your next-door neighbor.

Krithika Rajagopalan (who is the daughter of Hema Rajagopalan, a renowned Chicago-area performer and teacher of Indian dance) is not quite 18. She’s had an American upbringing, and when she talks, she’s an American teenager. But onstage, dancing, she’s the incarnation of a water nymph, an elephant, a Hindu god as a small mischievous boy. This young girl is remarkably beautiful, womanly, and assured, focusing and holding the audience’s attention as if it were natural for a 17-year-old to be stared at by a roomful of strangers.

Rajagopalan performed three works: a lyrical ganesha stuti, which combined pure dance with narrative; a kirtanam, which told a story in mime; and a tillana, a type of abstract dance with no meaning. She introduced the kirtanam by telling us something about Indian dance and about this particular story. There are 26 hand gestures, for instance, each of which can be modified to produce a new meaning. The lotus hand, given an inquisitive twist, can mean “why?” Held into the body, palm facing out, you get “wow!”

The story is about Krishna as a naughty young boy: he steals the clothes of a bathing cowherdess, steals butter from a neighbor, “repents” and is forgiven by his mother. Rajagopalan played all the roles. What’s remarkable about her performance is the ease and control she shows in shifting from one character and one story to another. The neighbor woman wears a look of utter disgust at the greasy face of the brat who’s been eating her butter. The boy’s mother is also angry, but she’s so infatuated with her son, so sure he can do no wrong, that the veneer of her anger is ready at every second to crack and show the smile behind it. Rajagopalan was perhaps best at playing Krishna, whose childish delight in deceiving may have come the most naturally to her.

The look of Indian dance is distinctive. The characteristic position of the body is a squat, legs turned out, back straight–remarkably like a ballet dancer’s plie. The vocabulary of gestures is rigidly defined, but they may be combined and performed in different ways, which is what gives a bharata natyam performance its subtlety and individuality–perhaps because it’s made up of discrete gestures, the dance has a carved, sculptural look. Rajagopalan often paused and held a pose, including a fixed facial expression, for long moments. Her chest rose and fell, her face retained its life despite being so still, and the effect was astounding: she seemed both human and inhuman, a statue come to life, a living god.

The ankles are ringed with rows of bells, so that the movements of the legs and feet supplement the music. The feet beat out the rhythms in surprisingly subtle ways. The ball of the foot can be slapped down to produce a distinctive tenor staccato note. Or the foot can be placed in a forced arch–on half-toe–and the heel brought down with a soft bass thud. While the feet mark the rhythm, the fluid expressions of the hands and face, particularly the eyes, sing the melody. It’s a particularly feminine and erotic form–elegant, measured, delicate, and at the same time full of force. It’s a brand of feminine strength I’ve never seen in any other kind of dance.

As I watched, I kept thinking about poetry. You don’t paraphrase poetry. It’s not the content that matters, but the particular and unique embodiment of meaning. That’s how I felt about these dances. The stories, the movements may be traditional–and in some circles familiar. But their expression in this particular young body was unique, as fragile and inviolable as poetry.

The variety of musical, theatrical, and dance folks appearing in the “Nights of the Blue Rider” indicates that this eight-week festival (the last performance is July 29) has a pancultural aim. But the Abiogenesis Movement Ensemble, a Chicago dance troupe that’s the opening act for each performance, clearly aims not only for the pancultural but for the panspecies. In Gargoyles they seek to inhabit and breathe life into stone; in the trilogy from Species I Have Known they’re pods and birds. But though there’s something intriguing about seeing a human being mimic the tics and twitches of other creatures, these interpretations come close to obvious mime–they hold few surprises. The music was monotonously new-agey in each of the four pieces performed. And the movement, especially in contrast with Rajagopalan’s dancing, too often seemed muddy, shapeless, and unmusical.

Still, Weight I and II piqued my interest: two pairs of dancers take on each other’s weight in a variety of imaginative ways. And unlike the other, more didactic works, it seems to have an obscure emotional subtext: one dancer, left alone onstage at the dance’s midpoint, stares in horror at his own palm. Later the giving of one’s weight to another takes a particularly delicate form: one dancer, seated, rests her head on the thigh of a standing dancer, who takes the opportunity to briefly caress her hair.