"Shantala" is a story ballet without white swans, tutus and pointe shoes. Instead, the tragic love story of Queen Shantala and King Vishnuvardhana unfolded through the South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam on Saturday evening at the Allan Chotiner Auditorium in Beltsville. Conceived, choreographed and directed by Meena Telikicherla for her Gaithersburg-based troupe, Nrityanjali, "Shantala" is a 2 1/2-hour epic tale of a 12th-century warrior king and his talented and devout dancing wife, the renowned Shantala.
Bharatanatyam, a classical form, dominates in the South Indian states and is known for its complex rhythms, fast changes of weight on bare feet and highly detailed choreography. This is a dance style where the raising of an eyebrow or even the position of a fingertip is choreographed. The resulting drama relies heavily on facial and hand gestures. In eight scenes and accompanied by a six-piece Indian orchestra playing an original score by Usha Char, "Shantala" proved both richly theatrical and dramatically accessible. Program notes described the epic story of Shantala, finely danced by Telikicherla, from her birth and childhood to her marriage to the king and, finally, to her untimely death. The story's tragedy revolves around the king's desire for his wife to use her dance to beautify and celebrate the palace, while the devout queen wishes to dance only as a form of worship. This internal battle of the profane and the sacred is unmasked through heightened facial expressions.
Kiran Subramanyam danced the role of King Vishnuvardhana with bold vigor. In the first sections, Rebecca Wilkinson played Machikabbe, Shantala's mother, with aplomb and dramatic flair, while young Surnita Nair and Puja Telikicherla elegantly danced Shantala as youngster and teenager, respectively. Babu Parameswaran and Subhashini Krishnamurthi narrated with chantlike singing, and seven additional dancers skillfully brought the tale to life with expressive sequences, including a lovely one when a sculptor carves figures that emulate Shantala's dance poses, and another, a quaint dream sequence, when the sculptures come to life to entertain her.