Hand to Gods

November 11, 2011

DANCE REVIEW: Shantala Shivalingappa

Janet Anderson for Philadelphia City Paper

Accompanied by four gentlemen playing flute, percussion instruments and singing while cross-legged on stage, the India-born, Paris-raised Shantala Shivalingappa kept her audience rapt at the Annenberg Center Saturday night. It wasn't the usual crowd: At least half of the viewers donned saris, Nehru jackets or were draped in beautiful embroidered silk (while the other half, myself included, may have unintentionally toned down the glamorous effect with slacks and sweaters).

Each of six dance sections was dedicated to a specific deity. First was Vani, goddess of the arts; next was the sun god Surya Stuthi, who is greeted every morning and night with, "Praise be to you, O' Surya, source of our life, bless us equally with your sacred witness." Then Shivalingappa moved on to Ganesha, the most loved god in India, as he's always kind and compassionate. The dancer used her eyes, hands and facial expressions to express the emotions each beloved god calls forth, making her movement piece feel as much like a holy act as a performance.

In each section, Shivalingappa leapt barefoot onto the stage wearing a gold-trimmed silk dress that draped around her as though she'd been born wearing it. The colors changed as the performance shifted from one god to another. Jewels shimmered on her head. Often the costume became part of the performance: When she turned her back on the audience and dropped into a perfect pli with her hands lifting up, her pleated skirt transformed her into a beautiful fan.

Shivalingappa's craft should be thought of as speaking hands they reach to the sky, then turn sideways, fluttering like birds, imploring the gods. Gracious and smiling, she moved her hands toward the audience in gentle gestures of inclusion. Mesmerizing.