How far we in the West are from having exhausted the performing arts treasures of the rest of the world was stunningly demonstrated last night by the appearance of a Yakshagana troupe from southwest Indian at Baird Auditorium, under the joint auspices of the Smitsonian and the Asia Society.
The Yakshagana performance was a particular revelation because of its contrast with exquisitely stylized classical Indian dancing more familiarly known here, especially of the type known as Baharta Natyam. Though it has classical elements and a 400-year-old tradition, Yakshagana is basically a genre of folk theater, calling for open-air performance of plays based on Hindu epics, and involving song, dance, recitation, improyised dialogue, muscial accompaniment and extremely fanciful makeup and costuming.
The plays begin and end with prayers and invocations -- gods are praised, entreated and thanked. But Yakshagana fuses the spiritual and the profane with an ease and naturalness absent from Western culture since the Middle Ages. The total effect, in our terms, is a mixture of opera, oratorio, fairy tale, vaudeville, ballet and action-adventure movies.
The dancing is more obviously, more athletically virtuosic than other Indian forms we've seen -- there are spectacularair turns, jumps that land in a deep crouch, and whirling circles done on the knees. The repertoire of steps, performed to intricate drum rhythms, is wondrously varied, and includes such things as toe and heel patter with the rapidity of tap dancing. In accordance with tradition, moreover, all the performers are male -- female parts, like our "travesty roles," are taken by men in startlingly realistic dress and maquillage.
Last night's pay, "Abhimay's Battle," trimmed from 12 hours to 90 minutes for the current tour, depicted a conflict of princely clans culminating in a tense, vivid combat scene.
Its humor, pathos and drama were conveyed across the barriers of custom and language with truly astonishing power.