REVIEW: Prakriti Dance presents “Amba Shikandi : A Journey of Courage” at Atlas Intersections Festival

REVIEW: Prakriti Dance presents Amba Shikandi : A Journey of Courage at Atlas Intersections
by Raquel Lake

Opening night of Atlas Performing Arts Center INTERSECTIONS Festival, I had the pleasure of seeing Amba Shikandi: A Journey of Courage performed by Prakriti Dance. The young company of just three years opened the festival with an inspiring story of  transformation, perseverance, and determination. Dance is art, dance is expression, but we must never overlook that dance can also be a vehicle for inspiring growth and change in the artist as well as the audience. We look to find ourselves in the stories we seek out. We look to be acknowledged, and Amba Shikandi’s journey provided all the above.

We were truly transported to a far away place as the night’s journey began with story, song, and color. A black room was filled with ornate sound as our narrator began the story of the princess Amba and her sisters. We saw our three princesses wrapped in beautiful colorful saris, hair ornamented with sparkle and beads, fingertips and toes painted red, and ankles strapped with anklets lined with bells; the last piece of their costume was their beautifully made up expression filled faces. A key part of the dance was in the face. The expressions added tremendous elaborate detail to the movements and the music. The dancers’ faces expressed great emotion and served in a way as another key component of the dance. While dancers in all dance forms emote, I got the sense that in Indian dance what the dancer conveys with the face is a large part of what can make the performance moving and great.

As more of the story unfolded, I became more and more familiar with all the dance elements and vocabulary of the Bharata Natyam style. Faces, eyes, feet, and hands were all intricately and compellingly moved throughout the performance. Dancers bent knees into what looked like a plie and applied delicate hand gestures, neck articulations, and footwork to the music. They reached to the heavens while they twirled their fingers, drawing your eye to the bend of each knuckle as they pulled you further into the drama of the performance.

Once the intricate hands and outstretched arms were placed into position, footwork began. Feet stomped with precision  and on time with the music. Every beat of the drum was welcomed by the ball of the foot or heels hitting the floor causing the bell filled anklets to ring out. The feet moved with poetic cadence. It was a truly sensory overwhelming performance in the best way possible. When the lights went out again and our narrator revealed more of the story, all your senses were given time enough to get ready for more.

The night’s story was about transformation and triumph as Amba transformed and became Shikandi. She, with great courage, chose to transform from woman into man seeking justice for herself. In the end there is triumph of the spirit because Amba Shikandi achieved her goal. This storyline was so relatable and timely. We all search to have wrongs righted, and I felt Kasi Aysola, choreographer and Prakriti Dance Co-Artistic director purposefully chose to tell a story that audiences could take home and apply to their own lives.

I appreciated the time spent on every detail of the performance. The time spent on vibrant beautiful costumes, dynamic music, intricate movements, percussive detailed footwork impressed a story that was well thought out and executed. There was such a synergistic marriage between every element of the performance; nothing was overlooked. Even the use of lighting, which played with shadows, added a cool texture. It was easy to get wrapped up into whatever aspect of the night’s performance you wanted to.

The production consisted of five dancers playing various roles throughout the night. The talented company of dancers were Kasi Aysola (choreographer), Madhvi Venkatesh (co-director of Prakriti Dance), Davina Etwaroo, Ramya Sundaresan Kapadia, and Vanita Todkar. These five amazing dancers portrayed all the characters from princesses Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika to Shiva God of Destruction and even kings. The performers of Prakriti Dance danced the night away with skill, energy, and thoughtfulness. The detailed articulation in the vocabulary of Indian dance and Bharata Natyam in particular can be summed up in one word: poetry.

At various times we watched the poetry of a solo dancer, groups of two or three, or the entire company compelling used to tell the story.  The movements, still fantastic, now became a visual conversation between audience and performer. Performers would look off into the distance or even at times made direct eye contact; either way you were brought onto the stage with them while they danced. It added something to the experience to be so close to the dancer. It created an interesting space of collaboration between performer and audience.

Kasi Aysola is a talented dancer and choreographer. As the lone male dancer of the night, it was hard not to get whirled up into his spins that included his arms adding to the fullness of the circles that he made. It is apparent that he understands not just how to tell a good story but how to use the movement vocabulary of Bharata Natyam to captivate and engage the audience.

The night ended with all five dancers taking the stage for the Benediction. This section was again all about intricacy and detail in the hands and feet. The angles that they made were also intriguing to watch. Dancers would raise the opposite arm of the dancer behind them thus creating a circle. This final piece was about completion, about the triumphant end of the journey, for Amba Shikandi. The dancers made sure to take full advantage of the space and the atmosphere they had created.  

Prakriti Dance made sure we were all engaged until the very end. As the feet struck the ground with preciseness and the cacophony of all the bells, drums, and driving rhythm filled the air we were left with the words, “May the roaring flame of Amba Shikandi’s spirit blaze a path for all.”