REVIEW: Kalanidhi @ 25 at Lisner Auditorium

From the DC Dance Journalism Project

Kalanidhi @ 25 at Lisner Auditorium
REVIEW by Christina Lindenmuth

On the evening of November 6th, the Lisner Auditorium was bustling with people dressed in traditional Indian clothes. The throng of bright colors set the tone for what was about to come. This year Kalanidhi Dance [kah-LA-nee-dee] celebrated their 25th anniversary with a performance showcasing the company’s evolution over time. The first section of the show was a look back at favorite pieces from their past, performed by the Kalanidhi alumni. The lights came up and I was instantly overjoyed by the music, the costumes, and the contagious facial expressions. It’s all exactly what I was expecting, but better!

Kuchipudi is a classical form of Indian dance that is characterized by subtle isolations, intricate hand movements, percussive footwork and storytelling. I fell in love watching Kuchipudi at The Academy of Indian Music’s annual competition for youth and adults, but I’ve never seen such a polished, professional display of Kuchipudi before. I was blown away. The attention to detail was impeccable. Each dancer’s costume consisted of at least 20 pieces, and not a single jewel or tassel out of place. Even their nail polish was all the same bright red and their eyes painted with the perfect cat eye.

I was overall most impressed by the musicality of the choreography. In one of my favorite pieces, Jugalbandi, they demonstrated their talent for dancing on brass plates. Four dancers balanced their bare feet on the edges of the plate, and using their body weight they would shuffle forward to the music. The bells around their ankles jingled and they moved their plates and arms in and out of different poses, stopping in an instant with the musical queues, all while maintaining an effortless smile.

In the second part of the show, entitled “Our Roots,” we saw three dances choreographed by Guru Vempati Chinnasatyam. The most impressive was Plea for Salvation, performed by Kalanidhi’s Artistic Director, Anuradha Nehru. She, alone, acted out a story with many characters through a combination of dance, miming, and character acting. She would become a different character by changing her posture and facial expression. She would even act out full conversations between people! It was very impressive, as this story seemed to go on forever, that she could continue the fantasy the entire time. It helped that there was a screen above the stage, with a few sentences here and there explaining the story in English for the American crowd.

The final portion of the show was called “Why We Dance.” Each piece was inspired by quotes from the company members themselves, explaining what dance means to them. The opening number Heritage was very fun. The dancers start out by dancing for Lord Nataraja, the creator of dance. They give thanks to all the gods, the patrons, the creators, the gurus, and even Mother Earth. The lyrics then explain the perfect posture of a dancer, and each dancer cheerfully acted out that the “ears align with the waist, elbows and shoulders with the neck, with torso arched and chest raised.” It left me feeling kind of silly, and proud, to be a dancer.

My favorite piece of the evening was called Freedom. The background was a dreary scene of sunlight peeking though the leaves of tall trees, and the dancers come out uncharacteristically gloomy and sullen. With their eyes down they stand together in straight lines, contracting in agony, miming books in front of their faces. One dancer goes off on her own, timidly at first, and then is able to break free and dance in the spotlight. She smiles and sways but afterwards is drawn back to the others and joins them again in monotonous misery. Then a duet begins; the girls moving slowly and joyfully while the others look on. The duo becomes a trio, and then a quartet, until they all dance together. The lights changed to an uplifting bright yellow as they danced in unison.

I enjoyed my evening watching the Kalanidhi dancers. I am really delighted by the subtleties of Kuchipudi; the dancers are literally choreographed from the position of their head to the placement of their toes. Each and every dancer has such a genuine smile, and thanks to the English story prompts, I now know that the subject matter of most of these songs is gratitude. They dance to be thankful! And Kalanidhi Dance is preserving a fun, traditional Indian art form for years to come.