Shantala Shivalingappa, a study in complexity and grace

Opera isn’t the only unifier of the arts. Consider the antic gods, devotional poetry, music and celestial mystery conjured by Shantala Shivalingappa on Saturday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

Shivalingappa is a kuchipudi dancer, but identifying her that way doesn’t do justice to the world she creates with her penetrating black-rimmed eyes and the sweep of her arms. Spinning and stamping before a simple backdrop of white silk curtains, she was more like a one-woman commedia dell’arte troupe, shifting among various characters, time periods, moods and manners in each section of her full-evening work, titled “Swayambhu,” that was presented as part of the center’s Maximum India festival.

“Swayambhu” is a Sanskrit term that the dancer translates on her Web site as “that which appears spontaneously.” It’s a useful description of the Shivalingappa experience. How else to account for the miraculous efficiency in her depiction of the grace of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, or the childlike joy of Lord Kumara, the gods’ commander in chief, a fearsome destroyer who plays with peacocks?

Of course, she’s starting from a deep place: Kuchipudi is an ancient form of Indian dance, and its founder is considered a saint. But with the divine, there is earthiness — elements of folk dance are folded into kuchipudi, so the presentation feels refreshingly direct. Shivalingappa is not the least bit remote, and her wit and straightforwardness — along with her willowy beauty — have been prized by such Western choreographers as the German experimentalist Pina Bausch, who featured the Indian dancer in her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal.

On Saturday, Shivalingappa held the packed theater hostage in her gaze, but her long limbs were just as commanding and expansive, whether in the shooting-star trajectory of her arms or a raised leg that stabbed toward her musicians.

Four of them joined the dancer onstage, producing a symphony of deep, raspy vocals, an otherworldly flute, tinkling cymbals and double-sided drums that fluttered and growled. The unexpected rhythms! And her startling jumps, with her feet tucked under her. The sweet murmur of her ankle bells. Near the lip of the stage, Shivalingappa placed a candle, then sang a prayer by a young saint. The program tells us that after he wrote the text, the fellow experienced “divine ecstasy” and left his physical body. What would that look like? Shivalingappa showed us.

Her feet padded in a quickening pulse, the drums called like crows before a summer storm. In a sudden exhalation, the silk curtains plunged to the floor. They billowed around her as Shivalingappa whirled and whirled, riding a heady wave of drumbeats, and finally spinning into the wings. She left behind the flickering candlelight, the echo of drums. And, yes — a kind of peace.

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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