“Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body”
“Dancers are the messengers of the gods”
- Martha Graham
There is a clashing of cymbals. Like an instrument, the sound of chanting rises slowly in the air. An invocation ascends in a syllabic intonation, voices seeking a blessing.
Bless me Gauthama Buddha!
Bless me Lord Shiva;
the Lord of the dance !
Bless me, dear parents
and teachers !
Bless me, members
of the audience !
Sinuous, sliding shapes appear before our eyes. Coiling and uncoiling, twisting and entwining, they come together and move away. The stillness hangs silently in the air. Slowly, deliberately, the shapes uncoil and stir into life. The beauty of movement begins. It is the dance of the cobra.
A conch shell blares, cleaning, purifying. Its waves echo the roaring sound of the sea. The reverberations continue, bringing prosperity, they take away the bad energy and announce a new beginning. It is the beginning of new performance by Natanda, Sri Lanka’s contemporary dance company.
The most recent of Sri Lanka’s traditional dances, the Vannam dates back to the 18th century, to the reign of the Kandyan King Narendrasinghe (1707-1739 AD)
Drawing on the ancient classical tradition of Ves Natum or Kandyan Dance, Natanda fuses it with contemporary dance and modern ballet, to re-enact the Vannam, one of the great dance rituals of Sri Lanka. The most recent of Sri Lanka’s traditional dances, the Vannam dates back to the 18th century, to the reign of the Kandyan King Narendrasinghe (1707-1739 AD), renowned as a great lover and patron of the arts.
The word “vannam” comes from the Sinhala word “varnana”, meaning descriptive praise. There are 18 Vannams. Each vannama is a recitation, inspired by nature, history, legend, folklore, art and religion; each recitation expresses a dominant idea. Melding drums, percussion, electro beats, rock and classical music with the traditional sound of cymbals, conch-shells and chanted verse, dancer and choreographer Kapila Palihawadana and his team recreate, innovate and reinvent.
Breathing new life into an ancient tradition, Palihawadana and his dancers perform their own versions of five of the Vannamas.
The Naiyadi - The Dance the Cobra.
The Gahaka - The Dance of the Conch.
The Gajaga - The Dance of the Elephant.
The Mayura - The Dance of Peacock.
The Thuranga - The Dance of the Horse.
In ancient Sri Lanka dance was a communication with the Gods and with the Buddha; the messenger of the gods was the dancer. It is the same with modern dance. The great American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham (1894 – 1991), believed that “Dance is the hidden language of the soul.” In the Vannam each dance is an abstract movement, hinting at a deeper meaning within. It is this meaning that Palihawadana and his dancers try to explore. Using their bodies as their vehicles, they are interpreters and intermediaries, still the “messengers of the gods.”
Modern dance in the west began as a rebellion against classical ballet. It has its roots in America in the early 20th century. One of its founding figures was Martha Graham. For Graham, ballet was too European, too imperialistic, and too un-American. So she went onto to create her own unique style, reshaping American dance. In 1926 she founded her own school, the Martha Graham Dance Company. The oldest dance company in America, it has had a huge influence on contemporary western dance. One of its most brilliant products was Mercier Philip “Merce” Cunningham (1919 – 2009).
Merce Cunningham is perhaps the greatest influence on Kapila Palihawadana, the founder of Natanda. Dancer, choreographer, teacher and innovator, Cunningham transformed the face of modern dance in the second half of the 20th century 20th century. Like Martha Graham, he founded his own school, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Inspired by the power of chance and random happenings, Cunningham introduced new techniques and new forms of movement, bringing sudden elements and unpredictable changes into the body of the dance. He did not believe that a dance needed a beginning, middle or an end. In a radical break with tradition, Cunningham also dissociated dance from music, creating moments of pure and silent movement. Inspired by Cunningham, Palihawadana brings in sudden change and pure movement into his rendition of the Vannam, fusing the past with the present to create something new.
Modern dance in the west began as a rebellion against classical ballet. It has its roots in America in the early 20th century. One of its founding figures was Martha Graham
There is a rustle of movement. A hulking shape looms slowly heavily into view. The Gajaga Vannama. The Dance of the Elephant has begun. Calm, stately and full of power, the Tusker is the most majestic animal in the world. It appears slowly, swaying from side to side. Accompanied only by the piano, it walks with grace and beauty. To portray the beauty of Tusker the entire ensemble takes the stage. Suddenly the mood turns mad and angry as each and every dancer is overcome with rage and violence. Evoking Merce Cunningham, the two male dancers move without music. That is the end of the Gajaga Vannma.
One of the most significant modern architects of the 20th century, the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange (1913-2005), was renowned for combining traditional Japanese styles with modernism. Tange once compared tradition with a
“The role of tradition is that of a catalyst, which furthers a chemical reaction
but is no longer detectable in the end result.”
Kenzo Tange (1913-2005)
This is what Palihawadana and his dancers have done. Using tradition as an inspiration and a catalyst, they have sought to re-invigorate and innovate. It is the very essence of modernism. Deeply conscious of their roots butalive to the future, the dancers ofNatanda are the modern face of Sri Lanka’s ancient living society.
Natfest - An International Contemporary Dance Festival
Organized by Sri Lanka’s first contemporary dance company, Natanda Dance Theatre of Sri Lanka, the festival will be held from December 1 to 8 in Jaffna and Colombo. The festival is to commence on December 1 in Jaffna, and concludes in Colombo on December 8. International dance companies will be participating from United Kingdom, India, Russia, Indonesia, and Switzerland this year. There will also be six local dance troupes participating from Colombo, Batticaloa, Jaffna, and Ratnapura