‘Samanvaya’: Harmony in motion, sealed with a look

As many Western forms of dance, in their struggle to retain audience interest, ratchet up displays of physical force, it is refreshing to see a pair of Indian dancers who can thrill a crowd with the way they shift their eyes. Madhavi Mudgal and Alarmel Valli, renowned classical dancers and utterly charming performers, kept the audience rapt at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on Wednesday with subtle drama taken at a leisurely pace in “Samanvaya: A Coming Together.”

Samanvaya is the Sanskrit word for harmony, an idea that Mudgal and Valli made incarnate by combining their dance styles. Mudgal is an expert in the curvaceous, fluid technique of odissi, while Valli is a leading practitioner of the sharper, well-defined movements of bharatanatyam. You couldn’t confuse one with the other — Mudgal was the rounder of the two, with a discernibly soft physicality, while Valli possessed a more athletic, reedlike appearance. It’s difficult to imagine two more disparate dancers complementing each other so beautifully onstage.

Each woman had a solo; Mudgal’s, titled “Vasant” and inspired by a 6th-century Sanskrit ode to spring, was especially pleasing. Indian dance is not nearly as open and splayed-out as, say, ballet, but even as the range of motion is more limited — the feet, for the most part, stay under the torso and rarely leave the floor — the rhythmic details grow and grow. With her bare feet patting out a pulse that would make Fred Astaire blanch, Mudgal might dip and scoop her waist, round her back, describe mountain breezes with her arms and the flight of birds with her fingers, all the while traveling serenely around the stage and even whirling once or twice.

Valli’s solo, titled “Scent of the Earth,” was more percussive and forthright; her expressive eyes played against the striking vigor of her feet. The building energy here was magnified in the two dancers’ concluding duet, with its quickening musical rhythms. Stamping gently side by side, the women sealed a phrase with a perfectly synchronized wag of a finger, flick of a hand or a pointed look. You realized the softness, the melting hips and the prettily nodding heads were all of a piece with this iron firmness. Cross these women at your peril.

The one jarring note in an otherwise enchanting program was the over-amplification of the music, performed onstage by nearly a dozen artists, including Sunil Kant Saxena on a sitar that was the aural equivalent of sunlight and air. The team of percussionists conjured racing heartbeats and the approach of fate. All this delicacy struck the ear at artificial volumes that, at least from where I was sitting, took much of the magic away.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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