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Radically ancient

Nrityagram dance company performs at Colorado College

The Nrityagram dancers stretch their interpretation of - ancient Indian dances, as well as themselves.
  • The Nrityagram dancers stretch their interpretation of ancient Indian dances, as well as themselves.

The origins of the Nrityagram dance company reads like an Indian fairy tale.

Once upon a time, there was a fair maiden who became entranced by a dance she saw. When she found the guru of the special dance, she asked him to teach her. He refused, believing that she would not be committed. So she struck a deal with him, making him promise that if he found her on his doorstep when he got home, he would teach her. She won the bet.

After several years of studying, she found the perfect place to teach others the magic of the dance, and she called it "Nrityagram." After a time, the woman handed Nrityagram over to her friend and protg to carry on. She then traveled to a Hindu mountain temple, where it rained so hard the mountain gave way and all the people on it were swept away, never to be heard from again.

Fairy tales aside, Protima Bedi was the real-life woman of this story. She actually camped on the doorstep of a guru of Odissi dance, the traditional Indian dance on which the school's philosophy was founded. She studied the dance form, and then started the company in 1990. After entrusting Ntrityagram to friend and fellow dancer Lynne Fernandez in 1998, Bedi went on a spiritual journey in the Himalayas where she was swept away in a freak landslide. Fernandez, still director of the school, says that Bedi was a masterful storyteller, and that the story is characteristic of the dramatic life she lived.

Nrityagram is what we might call a dance commune, located in southern India. Dancers who apply for the program must sign a minimum three-year contract and live on the premises. There they learn much more than just dance.

"They learn a lifestyle," said Fernandez. "Speaking English, eating, growing food and connection with nature is all part of it." The little village is self-sustaining; the dancers indeed grow their own food and live a holistic lifestyle so that they can become better people, and thus, better dancers. They raise funds for the company through performances, one of which will happen Sunday at Colorado College.

Odissi originated over 2,000 years ago and is just one of the Indian dance styles the company will perform. Although the dance follows an exacting arrangement, Nrityagram's performances stretch the interpretation of it.

"It follows classical structure, but Surapa [the lead dancer and choreographer] has stretched the limits of it," said Fernandez.

The company has also expanded a little from traditional costuming and accompaniment. The costumes, while strongly traditional, are sometimes altered for visual impact. The dancers dance barefoot and wear traditional bells on their ankles. Fernandez describes the accompaniment as following tradition, but "to Surupa, rhythm and sound is important." The rhythm, for example, might be spoken with a voice or tapped with different parts of the dancers' feet.

While we can't know exactly how the ancient dances flowed, we know parts of them by looking at temple sculptures. Fernandez says that the performance is a perfect blend of ancient traditions and modern interpretation.

"It's like watching sculpture come to life after 2,000 years."

-- Gina Schaarschmidt


Nrityagram Indian Dance Ensemble

Armstrong Hall, northeast corner of Cascade and Cache La Poudre

Sunday, April 3, 8 p.m.

Tickets $10; call 389-6607 for information.

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