Adornment is a reflection of the heart, wrote Coco Chanel. The renowned Indian dance artist Malavika Sarukkai takes up this thread in “Thari — The Loom,” an enchanting and deeply imaginative work inspired by the sari, the traditional garment that wraps a woman in layers of history, handiwork, culture and identity.
This 70-minute piece, given its U.S. premiere in performances Friday and Saturday in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, is Sarukkai’s first choreography for an ensemble, but you’d never guess, given the artful interweaving of the six dancers (including Sarukkai).
It’s clear that a firm hand devised the precise synchronicity and the harmonies of style, design and rhythm throughout.
Sarukkai is a master of the Indian classical dance form known as Bharatanatyam, but she has long stood apart as an iconoclast, bringing contemporary themes and motifs into her performances.
So it is here. The dancers, wearing gorgeous pleated and tailored costumes in deep pinks and reds, dart back and forth across the stage, and their crisp, linear patterns evoke the hand-looming of a sari’s thousands of threads. The recorded sound combined traditional rolling, surging drumming with the rhythmic clanking of a loom.
The simple elegance of a sari, unstitched and exquisitely draped rather than bound up by zippers, buttons or belts, offers a wealth of associations.
“As a young dancer, the sari was a proclamation, a sense of purpose,” a voice-over tells us. The garment, bestowing confidence and dignity on its wearer, eventually became “an emotion, a state of mind.”
It was good to have this bit of narration, for the movement was mostly abstract.
At times the dancers delivered small, repeated accents: light, quick jumps, with the feet gathered underneath the body, or squared shoulders and gently pivoting waists, turning like gemstones catching the light. Their softly insistent footwork tapped out beats like a luxurious ornamentation. These and other changes in the dancers’ dynamics and shapes seemed to echo the embellishments woven into a sari’s cloth. Stylized hand gestures, or mudras, and eye movements were subtler but no less impressive marks of expertise, drawing us into the life of the mind.
Sarukkai’s eyes, especially in her solo at the heart of “Thari,” communicated deep sympathy, urging us to pay close attention to each crook of a finger. But we pay attention for complicated reasons, or rather, because every honed muscle in her body commands it. One can rave about the flickers of emotion in her gaze, or the way she quivers her hands like aspen leaves in a breeze, or how she sinks luxuriously into her hips as though she, too, were woven of silk. But it is the interweaving of these qualities, and others, that make up a stage presence of unforgettable power.
Documentary filmmaker Sumantra Ghosal (who made “The Speaking Hand” on tabla maestro Zakir Hussain) collaborated with Sarukkai. His touch especially was seen in the ending, when projections of starry points of light wash over the dancers. These bright pinpoints multiply until they consume everyone, transforming the stage into a brilliant galaxy, dissolving matter into light.
( "Thari — The Loom" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. www.kennedy-center.org . )