Prana: The sounds of breath
- Rachel Turner
Photo courtesy: Daniel Phoenix Singh

April 11, 2012

Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company and Sakshi Productions presented an evening of dance in New York called Prana/Breath. The performance began with an invocation of breath by Donia Salem of Sakshi Productions. The slow, simple walk across the back of the stage set to the sounds of breath served to introduce the audience to the theme of the show.

Sakshi danced four pieces, in addition to this opening invocation. Beyond Muscle, Beyond Bone, choreographed by Carrie Rohman, featured two female dancers. These dancers were shown on stage, doing the movement in front of us, and also on the video screen backdrop, doing the same steps. Being able to see the same movements almost in unison from different perspectives, hinted at how fleeting a moment is - appropriate given the dance was in memory of the late Cheryl Wallace. After the music ended, the dancing continued, and ended in an unsatisfying, unfinished way. Night of Summer Stars, a premiere also choreographed by Carrie Rohman, was billed as “a duet between dance and music” and lived up to this expectation. The Lafayette College Percussion Ensemble accompanied the four dancers using unorthodox percussion techniques - including playing on crystal glasses and whistling. The combination of the music and the repeated movements created a trance like effect. The energy of the dancers was constant the whole time – during both sharp, larger movements and subtle, barely perceptible movements – which added to the trance effect. The only thing that jerked me out of the meditative trance was when some of the dancers’ feet squeaked on the stage during turns. Both of these pieces by Rohman showed us the modern side of Sakshi’s work. Particularly in the beginning of the dance, when the dancers subtly moved on the floor, we could see the influence of breath in the choreography.

Stone in Breath was another piece that highlighted the strong connection between dance and the music. In this piece, music brings stone statues to life. Akim Funk Buddha engaged and amused the audience with his incredible throaty singing and beat boxing. We were given insight into the Odissi style when the dancers sang the beats, called bol, as they performed the steps. Again, the theme of breath was referenced when the statues seemed to come alive when Funk Buddha gestured the giving of breath. My favorite piece by Sakshi was their other premiere, Ravana’s Homage. The piece featured three dancers, who mostly performed Odissi, but also were contemporary in their use of floor work and female-female partnering. The dance is a “homage  to Shiva, the ultimate cosmic dancer,” and the powerful beginning of the piece, with its sharp warrior like movements combined with the dramatic lighting embodies this idea of a cosmic dancer. The Odissi work was beautiful and powerful, particularly when done in canon.

Dakshina also performed four pieces, which ranged broadly in style. The most classical piece was Pushpanjali performed by two dancers in typical Bharatanatyam costume. Madhvi Venkatesh was especially enchanting with her facial expressions, which we also see later in Vasanth. The piece was centered around spatial theme of the diagonal, which made the classical work feel more contemporary, since the dancers were not presenting themselves directly to the audience at all times. Since You Asked was one of Dakshina’s modern dance pieces. The duet between two men was intimate, and the dancers had an extremely entrancing intensity in their eyes. The movements ranged from fast and sharp to extremely slow, providing contrast that drew attention to certain movements. Like Beyond Muscle, Beyond Bone, Since You’ve Asked ended in silence, but this time I was not left unsatisfied with the ending. The same movements were performed, and they took on a different meaning when danced in silence and demonstrated how the vocals of the music affect our perception.

The final piece of the evening, Vasanth, was my favorite piece performed by Dakshina. It told an engaging story, and while the story is Indian, the movements often fused Western and classical Indian styles. The facial expressions of Madhvi Venkatesh and Sudha Radhakrishnan really brought the story to life. The story tells us how Spring disappeared when Shiva, depressed by the loss of his wife, goes into a deep meditation. For most of the dance, Shiva sits in the back corner of the stage meditating - I like to think that Daniel Phoenix Singh as Shiva was actually meditating - and during narrative segments where the dancer portraying Vasanth tells the story using her gestures and face, the other dancers would stand around Shiva in an almost tableau. It was not quite a tableau because the dancers had their arms up, with palms forward, and would slightly move them. The narrative segments were interspersed between segments of intense dancing by the corps of dancers. Singh’s choreography, like in Pushpanjali, often was structured around the theme of a diagonal. Canon added complexity, and worked very nicely within the diagonal formations. Shiva and Parvati, the reincarnation of his wife, performed a beautiful, intimate duet. Instead of using obvious close, passionate embraces, Shiva stands behind Parvati and holds her hands, one over her heart and the other over her womb, in a very formal way. The formality of the gesture combined with the passion in the dancers’ faces created an extremely intimate atmosphere that I found more powerful than obvious intimacy through touch. Now that Shiva is revived, Spring returns and there is a final joyous dance, featuring more of Singh’s exciting fusion choreography.

In addition to their own works, Sakshi and Dakshina collaborated to create a stunning duet featuring Sakshi’s co-founder Nandini Sikand and Dakshina’s artistic director Daniel Phoenix Singh. The piece began with Sikand and Singh back-to-back, but despite their opposite facings, they are extremely connected through their initial movements on the floor. The two dancers represent the feminine and masculine sides that are within each of us. The movements and gestures in this piece come together to show this intimate but not romantic connection between the two halves of a whole. The gesture of giving that was used when giving breath in Stone in Breath returns in this piece, represents how the two halves give and take from each other. The piece ends with the dancers seated and back-to-back again, but with their hands crossed and placed side by side on the ground. Singh used a similar gesture in Since You’ve Asked, but in that duet the hands were stacked, showing a romantic intimacy, whereas the side by side hands implies a different relationship.

Throughout the whole evening we were reminded of the theme of breath. The intimate theatre space was perfect for this show, since the audience could actually hear the dancers’ breath. In some works the dancers performed loud, choreographed breaths to silence, but even the dancers’ natural breathing was audible, and this kept the theme alive the whole night.