Dancer and choreographer Jin Won brought a spirited ensemble of musicians to the Princeton Festival on Saturday, in “Pradhanica” at the McCarter Theatre Center’s Berlind Theatre. An exponent of North Indian Kathak dance, Won trained in Ahmedabad, receiving a conventional education through the time-honored gurukul system in which aspiring artists receive one-on-one instruction from a master. Yet this South Korean performer, as irresistible as she is versatile, seems eager to bend the rules. Her delightful concert was framed but not limited by tradition.
Won’s accompanists in “Pradhanica” included a cajón player and a djembe drummer adding Latin American and African percussion to the traditional pairing of Indian tabla drums and sitar. Her guru, tabla maestro and composer Pandit Divyang Vakil, supplied the rhythms that put the dancer’s stamping feet and the jingle of her ankle bells in dialog with the drummers. Yet while this stimulus was authentic, the instrumentation lent the music an unusual texture. To ensure listeners didn’t miss the point, the percussionists emphasized their differences by taking turns in solo passages. Michael Lukshis tickled the tabla; Vincent Pierce smacked the cajón; and Kaumil Shah coaxed a sonorous beat from the djembe.
“Pradhanica” is a Hindi word for “female leader,” and Won is the forward scout leading this ensemble into new lands. One of her goals is to extend the length of Kathak compositions. This approach seemed especially effective in the dramatic numbers, in which Won portrayed four emotions: joy, sorrow, anger and peace. Representing the emotions, or “rasas,” is a common test of an Indian dancer’s expressive skill, yet the usual number in the suite is nine. By reducing the total Won could allot more time to each mood, giving herself greater scope.
“Joy” was a study in openness, with the dancer’s arms spread wide. She shrugged her shoulders, releasing tension, and crossed the floor with a skipping step.
“Sorrow” had a lengthy musical introduction during which she stood motionless like a pillar silhouetted against a blue background. When Won began to move, she turned heavily as if pressing against a current. She hid her face and, bringing her fingers to her lips, she tasted bitterness.
Won finished “Sorrow” crumpled on the floor, but “Anger” woke her. Her gaze narrowed; her limbs slashed the air; and she leapt against an orange background that seemed lit by flames.
Sitarist Indrajit Roy-Chowdhury joined the ensemble for these emotional dances, lending a sparkle and imaginative depth to the accompaniment, but then a new instrument was introduced — a tiny cymbal. The “ping” it made suggested drops of water splashing in a pool as Won sat contemplatively in a circle of violet light with one hand curving outward. Later in this slow-moving “Peace” section, she would balance on one leg, displaying the strength of untroubled calm; and kneeling, she wiped her face as if clearing distractions from her mind.
Evidently Won has been at pains to develop the expressive facets of her art since her appearance at last year’s Drive East Festival in New York. During the balance of “Pradhanica,” however, she was the embodiment of pure rhythm, palms flicking up and down while her feet responded to the drummers with an insistent patter and a smile played across her face. Among the most remarkable features of Kathak are the dancer’s ecstatic spins, and here, too, viewers could admire Won’s sensitivity to rhythm as, opening one arm to lead herself into a turn, she fell instantly in sync with the music, tempting us to follow her into a mystical realm.
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