For classical Indian dancer Malavika Sarukkai, the geography of her home country is deeply imbued with spiritual and cultural meaning. The Ganges River, in particular, embodies the richness of India’s history and the challenges of its present and future: It is one of the most sacred sites for the nation’s millions of Hindus, yet it has been devastated by pollution as India has industrialized and modernized.
In her evening-length work “Ganga — Nitya Vaahini — The Eternal River,” Sarukkai sought to sketch the place the river occupies in her heart and in her country’s national psyche.
It’s a formidable undertaking to craft and perform a work of such broad scope, but in her performance at the Kennedy Center on Friday, Sarukkai proved she was more than up to the task.
Sarukkai’s greatest strength as a performer is her unflinching commitment to her characters. Her delivery makes each movement, each posture and each glance feel essential.
This was perhaps best displayed in the second section, in which Sarukkai transitioned into and out of several characters, including a pair of young lovers, an old woman coming to grips with the death of her son and a priest performing a ritual.
In a matter of minutes, we see a range of movement and expression. As each lover, she is wide-eyed and optimistic, inviting the audience in with open arms, winding fingers and flirtatiously cocked head. As the old woman, she vacillates between angry and pitiful, dissolving toward the floor in deep bends when the tragedy is too much to bear. Then, as the priest, she stomps her feet with assuredness and fervor.
In other sections, Sarukkai does not depict the people who depend on the Ganges or the spiritual beings who inhabit it. Instead, she portrays the water. In “Lament of the Ganga,” which mourns the river’s ecological woes, her gestures are weighted and more restrained, a nod to the constraints caused by contamination.
Throughout the work, Sarukkai’s musicality is impeccable, with her steps arriving a sliver of a beat early to give the appearance that she was propelling the music, not the other way around.
The end of the work, meant to symbolize the river “surrendering her individuality to the ocean,” was one of few moments that didn’t feel pitch-perfect. The story called for Sarukkai to yield in her movement, but her steps still had the control and directness of someone who hadn’t quite given herself up.