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ISSUE 120 VOL 3 PUBLISHED 10/6/2006

Show at Carleton enchants Oles

By Anne Torkelson
Arts Editor

Friday, October 6, 2006

Groups of Oles crossed the river Friday to sit among the crowded pews in Carleton’s Skinner Memorial Chapel for “Sethu (Bridge).” Northfield residents as well as students and faculty from both colleges gathered to see the performance, which related the Hindu story of "Ramayana" through Indian and Balinese dance, music and drama. The ancient epic, popular throughout Asia, tells of Rama and Sita, their marriage, their exile to the forest, their battle with a demon, Sita’s abduction and the restoration of their kingdom.

Lighting up the stage were the seven female dancers of the Ragamala Music and Dance Theater in Minneapolis, including the school’s co-artistic director and internationally acclaimed leading dancer and choreographer, Aparna Ramaswamy, a `97 Carleton alumna.

The cast also included a Carnatic (South Indian classical) orchestra, a gamelan orchestra (an Indonesian ensemble largely made up of percussion instruments), world-renowned Indian vocalist Nirmala Rajesekar and a Keçak chorus.

Keçak, or Ketjak, is a Balinese vocal tradition that blends music and movement and is distinguishable by its "tjak-tjak-tjak" vocal percussion. It is sometimes called the "monkey chant."

The performance began with music in the chapel’s foyer. The band and chorus members progressed through the aisles to their places on each side of the stage, which was set with a simple backdrop of tapestries in red, orange and yellow.

Even when sitting, the chorus was far from stationary, moving in choreographed unison or acting as the weather or animals. Members of the chorus also sometimes provided voices for the dancers, and chorus member I Made Mahardika danced the part of the demon Ravana.

Once the ensembles were in place, an off-stage narrator began the story and the chapel was filled with complex rhythmic chanting. Then came a sound like rushing coins as the Ragamala women appeared, wearing vibrant costumes and elaborate jewelry and hairstyles.

To call the costumes vibrant and elaborate, however, is to say nothing of the dancing. The artists performed bharatanatyam, a highly stylized South Indian form of dance that blends classical "nritta" steps, which are without interpretive meaning, and "abhinaya," narrative aspects of dance.

Red-painted finger pads emphasized the dancers’ intricate finger and wrist movements, while ankle bells added percussion to the steps. Every movement, whether a single finger gesture, a tilt of the head or a coy shift of the eyes, was deliberate and meaningful. The dancing was full of sculpturesque poses, hand motions and complicated footwork, not to mention beauty and grace. Trisha Salkas `09 described the dancing as "gorgeous" and "breathtaking."

Between each scene, the narrator explained the next part of the story, which the dancers then acted out using the abhinaya technique. The women became storytellers as well as dancers, interacting with each other and the chorus and using gestures to depict both emotions and actions, such as shooting a bow and arrow.

Movements changed along with the story, becoming playful, for example, while Sita chased a deer, then quick and intense when Rama fought a demon.

The vocal music also varied with the character and storyline. During a seduction and a fight scene, Rajesekar’s lyrical, undulating songs gave way to fast-paced, staccato vocal rhythms sung by Ranee Ramaswamy, the project’s co-choreographer and the Ragamala founder and co-artistic director. "Sethu" was aurally, as well as visually, stunning.

While Carleton couldn’t boast as big of a crowd as the 6,000 that attended the performance’s 2004 debut in the Walker Art Center’s Sculpture Garden, empty seats on Friday were few, and the audience gave a deserved standing ovation. Jenny Eukel `07 said "Sethu" was "like a big, huge, colorful painting come to life – I loved it."

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