Shantala Shivalingappa unifies dance and dancer

Shantala Shivalingappa.

The Indian dancer Shantala Shivalingappa is the perfect example of how the dance becomes the dancer, when the two are not separate entities,but unified and equal.

The work entitled “Swayambhu” is a Sanskrit word meaning “moment of absolute lucidity, where reality reveals its true nature.” This is conveyed in a style of dance called Kuchipudi, a classical form from 15th century South India.

The dancer, who was here in 2008, is far more than what I remember. Her precision and detail in her movements was brilliant and she commanded the stage fully with her petite frame and help from four musicians, two drummers, one flutist and one vocalist. The translation of her stories through dance was elegantly displayed and the range of expression was engaging and vast.

There were seven sections that comprised the evening-length work and each portrayed a different text, poem or prayer. Though you might be uncertain about the narrative, Shivalingappa moves with such exactitude and detail, you can be sure the story is substantial and the emotions have great depth, ranging from paramount joy to deepest sorrow.

Dressed in ornate traditional costumes, Shivalingappa danced upon a simple but beautiful stage, her movements emphasized by expressive lighting; she took the audience on a compelling Eastern journey.

She painted a spiritual tapestry, with each body part adding a layer to the story. The countless gestures of the hands or mudras match in quantity and tempo the movements of eyes, neck and head. Even though she was one dancer, the roles she inhabited were many. By the end of the performance, the audience had been introduced to a significant cast of characters.

Musical interludes and a recorded introduction to each dance helped to flesh out the presentation. At one point, the two percussionists took the stage with a weave of rhythmic, complex patterns that flew off in various directions. A call-and-response section was both dynamic and humorous.

In one scene, Shivalinguppa depicted a dream in which she had a fight with her husband. Working through anger and conflict, she again found her love for him. The pantomime here was less subtle and effective than in other pieces, but her stage presence was transcendent, and her endurance and expression throughout the evening was captivating.

Eliza Ingle is a dance professor at the College of Charleston.