In my youth, every year I spent a spring weekend in Denishawn-trained ballet teacher Margot Gillis' annual dance pageant, a four-hour-plus extravaganza seen by loyal mothers, long-suffering younger brothers and weary dads. Margot had dozens of students and adored spectacle -- the number of dances, costumes, props and lighting changes might have strained even Florenz Ziegfeld's organizational skills. Whether we were performing Nutcracker Suite or The Little Matchgirl, the wings were littered with pink tights and knee-deep in a rainbow's worth of tutus.
One suspects a similarly fabulous backstage confusion -- albeit featuring saris and ankle bells, bindhi dots and henna paint -- at Dances of India, a pageant of East Indian dances ranging from classical to modern, performed by child and adult dance students. Choreographer/director Asha Prem, who runs the Dances of India School, offered an enticing smorgasbord (or the subcontinental equivalent) of narrative dance. Prem's program notes explain that Indian dance is "rooted in one artform above all else: storytelling." Ragas provide musical accompaniment, and repeated themes make the dance much lengthier than the Western equivalent. The East Indian tradition emphasizes elaborate hand gestures and poses that can communicate simple thoughts, such as acknowledging a deity, to more complicated messages. When the second and third finger meet the thumb, with pinkie and index finger upraised, that signals "a lion's head, an elephant, homa or yagna and preparations of medicine by physicians." Faces are also meant to be expressive rather than displaying the dreamy impassivity found in Western choreography. After intermission, one mobile-faced dancer demonstrated facial gestures ranging from happiness to lethargy (though there wasn't a lethargic moment to be seen).
Dancers in groups onstage tended to line up across the stage and not interact with each other so much as with the audience and -- presumably -- the intended deity. There are many deep lunges and arms akimbo in this kind of dancing, and the point is to get to the next pose -- which may not facilitate smooth or fluid gestures en route. With the more experienced dancers, the postures changed almost more quickly than one could perceive them, but the younger and less seasoned performers (Dances of India offers a seven- or nine-year program, which is one serious apprenticeship) were also interesting because you could see how hard they were trying and just what it took to stamp the feet and move the elbows just so.
One dance (part of the section called "Foreign Footsteps," which examined the collision of Western and Eastern styles) actually paired a duo performing a classical ballet (Nilima Shah and Tonya Wibbenmeyer) alongside a classical dancer (Sucheta Thekkadam). Oddly enough, Shah and Wibbenmeyer's tours jetés and pirouettes seemed more jarring than Thekkadam's concise and precise classical gestures -- but then, they were dancing to a raga. But the true success of the evening could be measured thusly: In a nearby seat, for the first hour a small boy in a baseball cap watched the troupe and carefully mimicked some of the finger poses. Then he fell asleep, perfectly content.