As you watch the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble perform the dances that were once a part of ancient Hindu worship, you might wonder how women wrapped in 27 feet of sunset-colored sari fabric manage those precarious positions.
"It's an expression of the lives we lead," says Surupa Sen, the group's choreographer.
The physical and mental discipline, strength, stamina and flexibility required of the traveling dance troupe from Bangalore, India, result from many years spent studying and practicing not just the seven types of traditional Hindu dance, but yoga, meditation, martial arts and Hindu beliefs and scripture.
"Hard work is a dancer's religion," Sen says. "We live the art form."
Nrityagram re-creates the more than 2,000-year-old Hindu gurukul tradition, in which women dedicate their lives to dance in a self-sustaining "dance village," a winding cluster of stone buildings designed to replicate traditional Hindu temples. Young women chosen to participate don't pay a single rupi; they contribute to the "village" by tending its gardens or working in its offices, and spend weekends teaching children free lessons.
The only program of its kind in India, Nrityagram was founded in 1990 by the late Protima Gauri, who was a well-known Bollywood model and actress until, upon seeing the traditional Indian Odissi dance in 1975, she experienced what she described as an intense spiritual conversion and dedicated her life to dance.
On stage, the ensemble's five members tell traditional Hindu stories, then offer a six-piece performance of Hindu dance worship rituals sprinkled with contemporary influences. They leap and spin across the stage in intricate costumes, adding to the flute, violin and drum with the rhythm of their bare feet slapping the stage and bells dangling from their ankles.
"It's an expression as well as abstract dance," says Sen. "We were handed down the vocabulary, but have to write the stories."
Jacqueline Lundquist first saw Nrityagram in 1998 when her husband, Dick Celeste — then U.S. ambassador to India, now Colorado College president — was invited to be the guest of honor as Nrityagram's annual all-night Vasantahabba festival. She says she was entranced with the dancers' "exotic beauty" and "spectacular costumes."
"It is so very different than anything we see here," says Lundquist. "This form of dance is so unique, and so very visually beautiful."