By Pamela Squires
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 12:59 PM
Bharatnatyam dancer Malavika Sarukkai, who wowed Washington audiences at the Freer Gallery in 2002, did it again on Thursday night at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. Sarukkai is a Padma Shri, an honor bestowed by the Indian government to recognize achievement in the arts and other disciplines, and one that carries great weight in India's dance world. She has choreographed works about the environment, danced with contemporary paintings as backdrops and experimented with material from English texts. She has always defined contemporary Bharatnatyam as anything that resonates with modern audiences.
At the "Maximum India" festival, she performed a work with a conventional subject, "Sakthi Sakthimaan," which takes the goddess Sakthi and the god Siva as its subjects. (The idea of the divine, Sarukkai has noted, is as relevant today as it ever was.) The one-hour solo unfolds in three parts; the story of dancing Siva's loosened anklet falling to Earth and creating rhythmic syllables; Siva as the earthly manifestation of "formless, divine potential"; and the goddess Durga battling the demon Mahishasura.
As a performer, Sarukkai is phenomenally precise. Her arms slice the air like rapiers and her feet strike the ground with a unique sound that could be likened to the hard ping of raindrops on a tin roof. As an actress, she is a chameleon: Her body seemed to change shape as she moved from male to female roles. She is also a master of coordinating movement and music. When she portrayed Siva playing a drum as he danced, her hand vibrated so fast it was blurred. The effect was unearthly and, in this portrayal of the divine, entirely appropriate.
The one unfortunate aspect of the evening was that many in the audience could not understand the sung texts that were one of the performance's most important components. Surtitles, even if mildly distracting, would have remedied this.
Squires is a freelance writer.