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MUSIC AND DANCE REVIEWS

Kerala Kalamandalam Troupe Shows Profound Strength

September 30, 1996|LEWIS SEGAL | TIMES DANCE CRITIC

In their huge skirts, high crowns and mask-like makeup, Kathakali dancers look superhuman before they take a step--perfect for the mythic dance-dramas they've been presenting on the southwest coast of India ever since the 17th century.

Indeed, Schoenberg Hall at UCLA seemed much too small on Saturday to hold the large-scale splendor and emotion of Kathakali singing, dancing, acting and music-making when the renowned Kerala Kalamandalam company made its first local appearance in 26 years, sponsored by the Arpana Foundation.

Complete with English supertitles (except for the last two scenes), "Duhssasana Vadham" offered key episodes from the Hindu epic "Mahabharata," starting with the rigged dice game that turns two sets of cousins into deadly enemies.

The title refers to the celebrated moment when the fierce Bhima (M. Krishnakumar) falls on his foe Duhssasana (P. Ramadas) like a maddened beast and claws him open to drink his blood and pull out his entrails. Accented with furious drumming, the image is overwhelmingly graphic: Never has a length of red, tassled rope seemed so horrifying.

Just as startling in its way is the "Bhagavad Gita" sequence in which the divine Krishna (M.P.S. Namboodiri) resolves the doubts of the warrior Arjuna (N. Vijayakumar) and readies him for battle. Dance-drama is common enough in India as elsewhere. But this is dance-philosophy, with the participants using gestures, steps and facial expressions to physicalize one of the greatest ethical debates in world literature.

Kathakali is an all-male form and the first thing a foreigner notices about the dancing is probably the immense weight and force of each barefoot stamp. Rapid shuffle steps (often seen in Krishna's solos) add speed and intricacy while the hopping entrance in the "Gita" scene tests the performers' balance and stamina.

Kathakali acting also requires mastery of a complex vocabulary of hand positions (called mudras) and delightfully bold use of the eyes and eyebrows, particularly evident in the performance of M.P. Vasudevan as the evil Duryodhana. Female characters--recognizably human in appearance and behavior--belong to specialists such as M. Rajasekharan.

Sung in Malayalam by M. Subramanian Namboodiri and K.K. Sivan, the song-texts create a flowing, sensuous sound-aura for the giant, glittering nightmare figures who stalk the stage of this unforgettably rich, strange and profound dance-theater.

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