Swaha: Rituals Of Union
nytheatre.com review by James Harrison Monaco
August 16, 2010
Swaha: Rituals of Union is a series of traditional Indian dance performances with religious significance. To review it as an American requires that I admit my vast ignorance of Indian dance, culture, and religion – in a way, my inability to write an informed review. But then the Trinayan Dance Theater company entered Swaha into the New York Fringe Theater Festival, and not an Indian dance convention, so they must be interested in the uninformed Western response.
The show begins when a woman enters wearing a complicated wrap-dress of bright pink and gold, and lavish gold chains around her ankles, wrists, and neck. Circling her waist is a ribbon of bells that punctuates her movements with jingles. She crosses the floor slowly and obliquely, with angular steps and extreme archings of her joints. This makes her body seem, throughout the piece, like a roaming stack of triangles. Alongside the Indian tambura music and chanting that emanates from the speakers, she pauses occasionally to arrange herself into particular shapes, which, by their exactness and difficulty, I assume have specific cultural/religious meanings. Her eyes and hands each do their own complex dances. These too, I think, along with the costumes, have in them an entire language.
But it's a language I don't know, and Trinayan Dance Theater did little to help me translate. In the program was a brief cultural explanation of the references, and a few definitions of certain religious figures, but I was unable to connect these with moments in the dance. This is a legitimate choice, and maybe even the best one, just to present the work traditionally and let the audience observe, but inevitably it then felt foreign. My interest in it was an attraction to that which feels "exotic"—i.e., good not by any confident standards I hold but because it is different from what I know.
So I experienced Swaha in much the same way I experience the Indian Art section of the Met. I studied elements of the work at random, hoping something would guide me toward meaning. I drifted, made sweeping guesses at the pieces' intentions, then gave that up.
And, as in the Met, I ended up latching onto the creative quality that never fails to enchant me: precision. I find it nearly impossible to be precise in anything—handwriting, dance moves, recipes—and so whenever I encounter something toiled over with precision, especially an activity that has no immediate importance to me, I have questions. Why would you learn to place your right foot flat against your hip, while standing, then twist your arms up like cranes above your head, freeze your eyes down at their corners, and hold the pose for over a minute? Why spend a quarter of a dance piece in a near frozen position? Why bells?
I have an anthology of Indian Love Poetry, and in its introduction it says that Indian aesthetics focus on humans perfecting the state of longing and separation (from a lover or from God). This doesn't help much with the symbolism, but it offers a kind of window. The great characters of the West fight hard to defeat and end their longing and separations. I think I, and most everyone I know, do the same. I don't know why you'd try to perfect your longing, but the idea intrigues me. I don't know if my anthology is right on, but in Swaha I did see patience, detail, and the attempted perfection of things as strange to me as longing.