Abhipsaa – A Seeking: Vibhanga, Virahi, Vimukthi
Duke Performances @ Durham, North Carolina, Rubenstein Arts Center, von der Heyden Studio Theater
10 December 2021
Bijayini Satpathy premieres Abhipsaa – A Seeking: An Artist’s Journey into and out of Solitude
Last weekend Duke Performances presented the celebrated Odissi dancer Bijayini Satpathy in her first choreographic work titled Abhipsaa – A Seeking. The sleekly designed, multi-purpose Rubenstein Arts Center on the elegant Duke University campus provided welcoming spaces for the sold-out performances as well as a dance workshop and public conversation.
Sathpathy, who trained in the Odissi classical dance form from early childhood, is renowned for her 25 years as a soloist and director of training for the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, the company based near Bangalore, India. However, in 2018, impelled by a yearning to explore her individual potential and artistry before it was too late, Satpathy left Nrityagram and struck out on her own. Until that point, Satpathy’s dance life had been defined by the communal experience. She understood that this new path might take her into lonely territory, but nevertheless Satpathy decided to untie herself from the routine of community and commit fully to the path of a solo artist.
A year later she returned to New York with a solo program of Odissi works titled Kalpana – the World of Imagination. The program and performances were an acclaimed success. There was no doubt about it, Satpathy was a powerhouse of a performer and a singular Odissi artist, but she had yet to spread her creative wings and choreograph. Just as she received the commission from Duke Performances in collaboration with the Baryshnikov Arts Center (in New York) to fulfill that dream and create a new work, the pandemic broke out jeopardizing the commission and the tour. Suddenly, Satpathy was faced with much more time in solitude than she had ever imagined. This extended period of research and development, however, allowed Satpathy the necessary time to create a fully fleshed out, evening-length solo choreography.
After countless challenges, which included coordinating an ensemble of musicians working from disparate locations in the creation and recording of new music and last-minute handwringing over visa issues for members of the production team, Satpathy arrived in North Carolina with her new creation.
Abhipsaa – A Seeking is composed of three dances – each displaying a particular dance experience – abstract (non-narrative) dance to music; emotion-filled narrative; and spiritual release. All three were distilled from a process of taking apart and reworking the Odissi sensibilities manifested in Satpathy’s store of knowledge and dancing body. The result was a generous and personal expression of artistic tenure.
Satpathy began with Vibhanga, broken & rebuilt – an abstract dance piece inspired by a non-Odissi musical form called a Thillānā. From the start, Satpathy turned things upside down by using Carnatic music (from another region) associated with Bharatanatyam (a different dance form). This rhythmic-melodic composition of infectious joy and freedom is generally the closing number in a traditional Bharatanatyam performance. Satpathy, instead, transformed it into an invitation into her explorative journey.
Vibhanga opens with an ethereal flute solo composed and played by Satpathy’s brother Srinibas Satpathy. The dancer rises from the floor and walks upstage into a conical corridor of light and haze within an otherwise dark stage. The exceptional lighting design by Sujay Saple evokes an unknown path, which is gradually revealed. The mardala drums and rhythm vocalization introduce an assuring foundation, on which Satpathy moves from one sensuous tribhanga (triple curve) pose to another. She eventually travels about the stage expanding her fluid invitational gestures – welcoming the dance into her body and inviting the audience into her dance. She gathers energy with audible foot slaps as she moves into the assertive chauk (wide plié) position and then springs lightly off the floor in a quick jump. With measured pacing, Satpathy slows down allowing us to savor the richness of the earthy vocals sung by Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy. Satpathy, in her singular manner, assumes a pose, and just as you think she has fulfilled it to the utmost, she deepens it further, creating a luscious synchrony with a similar quality in the music. The dance builds steam as she dynamically carves through space with an outpouring of turns, pivots, and generous arm and torso action creating a joyous Odissi-derived expression.
The Gita Govinda, a love ballad written by the 12th century poet-saint Jayadev, forms a major wellspring of inspiration for the traditional Odissi repertoire. The song cycle speaks of the eternal love between Lord Krishna and the cowherd Radha throughout their separations, their lovelorn longing, and their passion-filled reunions. In her second piece Virahi, in longing, Satpathy uses a set of verses, in which Krishna pines for Radha, as a jumping-off point to explore the idea of separation from where you belong.
The tones of a searching flute and soulful violin set the scene of love, reverie, and longing as Satpathy moves through a series of poses clasping her arms in dreamy embraces that fall empty in a pitiful thud. Dancing as the character Krishna, she beseeches the sakhi (go-between) with imploring gestures to rally her help in reuniting him with his beloved. Languorous movements and illustrative gestures evoking memories of blissful passion, amid the fecundity of nature, flow from Satpathy’s body like syrup from a honeysuckle. She confines her path to a long, lit diagonal, which she traverses up and down while deftly transitioning between the roles of Krishna, the sakhi, and Radha. With the emotional spell of her no-holds-barred abhinaya (use of facial expression to create an emotion-filled narrative) dance to the achingly evocative music, Satpathy broke the bonds of the earth’s gravitational pull and boldly took us into new territory.
Vimukthi, the final dance was inspired by the lyrics of the 15th century mystic-poet Kabir Das, who transcended traditional religious affiliation in his songs of spiritual ecstasy celebrating the formless divine. Satpathy shifts the energy as she begins with a rapid-fire sequence of claps, jumps, and percussive foot slaps to vocalized and drummed percussion. The stage fills with a large pool of light imprinted with the geometric design of a Mughal window, on which Satpathy moves about with spiraling twists and repeated turns peppered with spritely jumps. Driven by the poet’s words, “Dance oh my soul as a dancer would,” she repeatedly moves forward and back, her arms cajoling the surrounding molecules into a state of ecstatic dynamism. Finally, spinning like a Sufi whirler with head inclined as one palm reaches for the heavens and the other toward the earth, she sets free her non-denominational prayer.