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A Fascinating Display of Buddhist Dancing

Dance Review

January 29, 2002|LEWIS SEGAL | TIMES DANCE CRITIC

For a thousand years, a caste of Buddhist priests in the Katmandu valley of Nepal has practiced a form of meditation involving dancing, trance and the invocation of Tantric deities. An inheritor of this tradition, Prajwal Ratna Vajracharya demonstrated five of its dances in a fascinating Sunday program sponsored by the Himalayan Arts and Cultural Council at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena.

Known as Charya Nritya (dance as a spiritual practice), this idiom remained largely secret until the late 1950s; public performances since then have led to the adoption of costumes and other theatrical aids drawn from Nepalese religious paintings and sculpture. In the process, dances in which the priest attempts to be transformed or possessed by the forms and energies of Buddhist divinities have assumed a new role as education or entertainment for non-initiates.

Preceded by a parade of Nepalese clothing, the Sunday solos displayed links to Indian classicism in many characteristic stances and the use of mudras (hand-language). Taped Sanskrit singing, cymbals and sometimes drumming accompanied the dancer.

Except in a jumping, stamping personification of the lion-headed goddess Singhamukhi, he remained unmasked, his features usually frozen, apart from darting eyes. Smooth clockwise turns occurred in all the solos, though the wrathful god Vajrapani whirled in alternating directions and introduced grotesque facial expressions.

Gestural refinement and majestic poses dominated more serene dances, such as the one invoking the compassionate Lokeshvara and the introductory Mayanjala Time solo. But in nearly all the repertory, his limbs quivered with the transforming power of divine energy. In the words of the ancient instructions read by narrator Josh Brody, "One should meditatively derive bliss from bliss."

Prajwal Ratna Vajracharya offers a workshop in Buddhist dance at 10 a.m., Sunday. Pacific Asia Museum, 46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena. $36. (626) 449-2742.

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