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A modern view of Indian styles

'Planting a Sequoia,' an evocative setting by Malathi Iyengar of a poem, stops short of true profundity.

September 13, 2004|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

In an ambitious, uneven attempt to explore facets of a poetic text through several kinds of music and dance, the locally based Rangoli Dance Company and guests from India premiered Malathi Iyengar's "Planting a Sequoia" at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre on Saturday.

Dana Gioia's poem gave the one-act dance drama its title and theme: the contrast between human impermanence and the long-lived majesty of nature. Initially read by Alva Henderson and then reprised as a European-style art song composed by him for baritone and piano, the poem eventually became distilled in an extended suite by Indian composer Rajkumar Bharathi for six instrumentalists.

Henderson's music inspired Iyengar to create movement that imaginatively combined modern dance with detailed, expressive pantomime shaped by Indian traditions. The result proved magical in its evocation of Gioia's imagery when danced by Shyamala Moorty in the opening solo but became increasingly diluted.

Indeed, Gioia virtually disappeared in the Bharathi sections, evoked periodically in Iyengar's brief solo vignettes but serving mostly as a pretext for formal ensembles displaying her mastery of the South Indian classical dance form Bharata Natyam.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 14, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Rangoli dancers -- A review of the Rangoli Dance Company in Monday's Calendar included only the last name of the dancer-choreographer responsible for a North Indian folk ensemble. He is K. Murali Mohan.

However, formal dance-spectacle soon seemed an evasion of responsibility. In traditional Bharata Natyam performances, a sung text is repeated while the dancer explores all its possible implications -- and Gioia's poem deserved exactly this kind of exhaustive choreographic investigation. Instead, Iyengar merely provided a superficial gloss.

Her company and guests looked capable of deeper artistry, and she artfully incorporated several distinct dance idioms -- including Kathak. But classical Indian dance teaches the world how to be vibrant and profound at the same time, and Iyengar's production ultimately had only vibrancy to offer.

Taped music accompanied "Planting a Sequoia," but the first half of the program found a versatile four-member ensemble helping Rangoli showcase contrasting styles of Indian dance. The segments included Bharata Natyam solos by Shaheen Sheik and Lakshmi Iyengar; a Kuchipudi duet by Sanjay and Shama Shantaram; and a North Indian folk ensemble adroitly choreographed by Mohan.

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