An Odissi dancer charts new paths in 'the Land of Discovery'

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An Odissi dancer charts new paths in 'the Land of Discovery'
Bijayini Satpathy, a virtuoso of Odissi, one of India’s eight classical dance forms, performs as an artist in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with Sam Gilliam’s “Carousel State” as a backdrop, in New York, May 15, 2022. The Odissi dancer is moving past her roots to find a creative spark in the galleries of the Met. Julieta Cervantes/The New York Times.

by Marina Harss

NEW YORK, NY.- For more than 20 years, Bijayini Satpathy flourished in a community of fellow dancers, guided by the choreographic vision of another artist. When she, at 45, left the comfort of that creative bubble to find her own voice as a dance maker, the rupture from her former life was complete, and painful. She had to remake herself as an artist, almost from scratch.

But out of this rupture, Satpathy said in a video call from India, a great freedom has emerged, an opening to something new. “It’s just terrifying,” she said of this new phase of her creativity. “I’m constantly changing my mind. But it keeps me constantly engaged in the land of discovery.”

The past few years have been a period of profound transformation for Satpathy, long considered a great virtuoso of Odissi, one of India’s eight classical dance forms. (Choreographer Mark Morris has called her one of the world’s great dancers, full stop.) Now 49, she is entering a new phase in her relationship to the art form of which she is a master.

“I am finding that there are so many ways to speak through the language of Odissi,” Satpathy said in May, when she was in New York City performing a series of solos in galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I think that when Odissi is taken out of its habitual sphere, it has so much more to offer.”

On Sept. 13, she will present “Doha,” her new evening-length solo, in the museum’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. It is the culmination of months of exploration undertaken in almost complete isolation at her home in a rural area near Bangalore.

The house, which she shares with her husband and an array of cats and dogs, is surrounded by nature. In her large rooftop rehearsal studio, whose sides are open to the elements, thunder and the whoosh of monsoon rains are part of the musical backdrop to her daily practice.

By contrast, her former life was largely communal. For years, Satpathy was a central figure at Nrityagram, a dance company and artistic community led by choreographer and dancer Surupa Sen, herself an important innovator. For long stretches, Satpathy lived, ate, trained and taught in community with the other dancers — a life that could not be more at odds with the one she leads now. That artistic solitude, she said, has helped her to forge new paths in her dancing.

“Because I spend my time practicing alone now, not looking at anybody else,” she said, “it has taken me to places I have not known before.”

In her choreographic explorations, she is led by the free association of ideas rather than by Odissi’s familiar stories — many drawn from the 12th-century “Gita Govinda,” which recounts the love between Radha and Krishna. There are no gods in her dances now, or obvious narratives.

Satpathy has also been experimenting with music from outside of Odissi’s canonical repertory. “With a traditional Odissi composition, I know exactly what comes next and where to go from there,” she said. “This is more of an improvisation. I’m exploring, imagining.”

Her improvisations draw from other new sources, too. For a little over a year, Satpathy has been artist in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The residency, conceived by the museum’s director of Live Arts, Limor Tomer, gave her the chance to spend several weekslong periods at the museum, immersing herself in its galleries, gathering impressions. “What we could offer,” Tomer said in a phone interview, “is the chance to marinate in our collection and discover more about her individual voice and journey as a solo artist.”

Standing in front of “Carousel State,” a “drape” painting by contemporary artist Sam Gilliam that is influenced by expressionism, jazz and Gilliam’s experiences as a Black man in America, Satpathy felt a pang of recognition. The sweeping piece, painted on fabric that hangs in billowing folds, is a landscape of colors and emotions that overlap and collide.

“I didn’t know who the painter was, but I just fell in love,” Satpathy said. “It feels like fragments of so many experiences, from the most painful to the ecstatic and joyful. And in the end, everything comes together to become a thing of beauty.”

She also spent time in the Astor Chinese Garden Court, in the Islamic art galleries and at the Cloisters. Between these visits, Satpathy returned home to India, where, in the quiet of her rehearsal room, she created solos that drew from the sensations she had felt in the museum’s spaces. “The memories stayed with me,” she said.

As she developed her choreographic ideas, she collaborated, mainly virtually, with a composer, Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy, and a dramaturge, Poorna Swami, both of whom have pursued interests beyond the world of classical Indian music and dance. Narayanaswamy has worked extensively in film, and Swami has a degree in contemporary dance from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

In addition to suggesting literary texts that might stimulate her imagination, Swami pushed Satpathy to go beyond the usual rules of Odissi, a highly codified form that prizes a decorative use of the body, specific geometries of the stage and a transparent relationship with the music. Swami encouraged Satpathy to move in silence, or against the music; to engage with the art in a direct way; and to allow herself to be less perfect.

“She’s the devil’s advocate,” Satpathy said. She was also an extra pair of eyes. “I would give her very honest feedback,” Swami said in a phone call from Austin, Texas, where she was pursuing a doctorate. “I would point out things that weren’t working and ask her, ‘What are you trying to do there?’”

“It was hard on the ego,” Satpathy admitted. But over time, she became increasingly comfortable with moving beyond the familiar. “Linear was my way, center was my way, front was my way. But now I have had to find a new way to justify the progression of the movement.” In her solos in May at the Met, she created intimate tableaus and pathways through the gallery spaces in which there was no clear front, and where movements were not necessarily performed in perfect symmetry.

She projected less, and instead focused inward. Sometimes, she even turned her back to the audience, as when she framed her head with her arms while sinking in a deep backbend in front of Gilliam’s painting. The movement felt immediate; personal, rather than formal.

Each of the galleries supplied a theme, she said. In response to the spareness of the medieval architecture at the Cloisters, she developed a pared-down palette of steps suggesting ritual, but no specific spiritual tradition. From the abstract patterns in the Spanish ceiling of the museum’s Islamic art galleries, she gleaned that a fragment can be multiplied almost to infinity. Gilliam’s canvas suggested to her that it was possible to treat emotional narratives in a nonlinear way.

All of this has found its way into her new solo — a 45-minute long, non-narrative exploration of the Odissi vocabulary, which she has dedicated to Gilliam, who died in June. The movements are spacious, each step flowing into the next, her upper body creating elegant arcs and spirals in response to the powerful movements of her legs. Her mastery of form and technique allows her body to move with amplitude, filling the space around her. At times, she seems to dance for her own pleasure, traveling from one area of the performance space to another with total freedom.

Her partner is Narayanaswamy’s score, which flows from the familiar rhythmic structures of Odissi music, undergirded by the double-headed mardala drum, to flute melodies suggestive of the Hindustani musical style of northern India, to a collage of sounds inspired by prayers from around the world. Satpathy describes the score, which is recorded, as an aural map that leads her from one idea to the next, while leaving space for improvisation.

“The music takes her into absolutely unfamiliar territory, sonically,” Narayanaswamy said in a video call, “and then moves back again, toward something more familiar. It’s not about imagining a world that is either/or, but about being able to flow in and out.”

The piece may not be narrative, but it is not impersonal.

The underlying themes of “Doha,” prayer and play, lead back to the thing Satpathy does every day in the studio and on the stage. “These two elements are precious to me,” she said, “both my moments of serenity and peace, but also my moments of play, curiosity, wonder.” She connects to both states through her dancing. As she put it, “I can just go into my studio and travel to another world.”

The title, “Doha” (which means couplet), refers to a couplet by 18th-century Urdu poet Mir Taqi Mir, about the delicacy of the universe. “Breathe softly,” it reads, “for the mirror work of the cosmos is delicate.”

When she first read these lines, Satpathy said, she felt they expressed something she understood deeply. “These years of pandemic have shown us how fragile things are, and how quickly they can collapse, how delicate the making of the universe is, and in my case, how delicate relationships are.”

Instead of recoiling from this feeling of fragility, she has embraced it. “The thing is, I’m a new choreographer,” she said in May. “So yes, everything is new. Maybe it is too brave, or too ambitious. But I’m throwing myself out there.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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