Manipur, "the place of precious gems" in India's northeast, is also a cradle of rare dance traditions. Last night at the Washington Ethical Society, Manipuri dancing was featured on an India Independence Day program. Also included were examples of the more familiar Bharata Natyam and Kathak styles, plus a tribal dance from Nagaland.
Fast footwork exists in Manipuri, but it is not the essence of the dance. Lyrical swaying and gentle, alternating half turns predominated in a lovers' duet, with the man's virtuosity displayed in cushioned hopping steps. Work in the air was part of all the male Manipuri roles. A drumming and dancing solo was full of little leaps and air turns, and in a richly costumed vignette about divine courtship there were supple jumps. Nabaghana Shyam Singha, who was cast in all the leading men's parts, is a loose performer. His dancing fails to define the surrounding space, but he does have lightness.
Shuba Chakravarthy, who danced the Bharata Natyam solos, is a steely technician. Her stamping literally smacked the floor. Temperamentally, she is an extrovert, which suited the plotless dances more than her characterization of a forlorn princess.
The most remarkable performance was Kumari Kamallata Singha's rendition of "Kathak Nritya." This young dancer began the long (about 20-minute) solo by showing signs of inexperience. But as she tapped out the rhythmic refrains again and again, she seemed to grow taller, a smile began to play on her face, the interjected balances became proud and the waving arms enticing. The solo evolved from a mere demonstation into what it once was in India's royal courts, a dance of display and seduction.
Nagaland's hunting dance, which concluded this Nritya Rangam production, seemed to have more in common with some of the tribal dances of American Indians than with the classical choreography of India.