People have been exploring and explaining spiritual matters through dance and song for time out of mind. In India, the exquisite Odissi dance tradition that speaks with wordless eloquence of divinity and love is more than 2000 years old. Its ancient ways are maintained and refreshed by the wonderful Nrityagram Dance Ensemble who performed a splendid afternoon concert presented by Carolina Performing Arts in UNC-CH’s Memorial Hall. The five female dancers were joined on stage by four musicians performing and singing compositions by Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi written especially for Odissi dancing, to which company artistic director Surupa Sen has choreographed a suite of works called Pratima: Reflection.

Modern Odissi dancing has a strong philosophical element that contemplates the great mysterious truths of the universe, as well as a worshipful, celebratory heart that glories in the divinity of the sensuous world. The dancers resemble the beautiful temple sculptures of the Orissa region in body language, and the silk-garbed women excel in combining the magnificent S curves of their carved counterparts with angular shapes generated by arms and feet, and an entire expressive vocabulary of pictographs formed with gestures (bhava) and facial expressions (mudra). The communicative efficacy of these is greatly enhanced by the dancers’ dramatically shaped eye makeup, and the hand language is captivating. At times it is as if a flock of delicate birds has joined the women. Each fleeting position or attitude is emphasized by some aspect of the women’s jewelry, head ornaments, necklaces, hip girdles, bracelets, wide anklets of bells, and their wrapped saris, the rich borders of which spiral around their bodies.

Visually, Nrityagram is thrilling, with its patterned, decorated dancers leaping and turning, alternating rhythmic, patterned progressions with narrative or lyric sections replete with hand motions. The company is also aurally exciting. Each dancer is also part of the rhythm section, with all those ankle bells shimmering above the sound of feet stamping or slapping the floor. Combined with the musicians’ contributions of  velvety drumbeat, warm violin vibrations, resonant vocalizing and the twining top-notes of a flute, the sound of the dancers in motion conveys us to a place where physical beauty becomes spiritual.

Pratima opened with “Praarambha” (Hymn of Creation), danced to a song (taken from the Rig Veda) about the oneness beyond the dualities of this world — which itself forms a duality with nothingness. This was well-followed by “Chhaya” (Image), more of a pure dance piece, which playfully embellished the idea of duality with doubling and “reflected” patterns. In this very well constructed dance, Surupa Sen made excellent use of the combinations possible for five dancers, and her spatial arrangements were as intoxicating as the dance language.

Two pieces about Lord Krishna followed, the second one being danced by Radha (the highly expressive Surupa Sen) as she berates Krishna, her immortal love, for dallying with another woman while she awaited him all night. For each of these pieces, the audience heard the story first in English, as the dancer demonstrated the physical language that would tell the story in the dance. Once the music and the dance began, it was very easy to follow, although for Radha’s story, translation was hardly necessary. As Ginger Rogers says to Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio, as they watch couples dance the carioca, “I can see what they are talking about from here!”

The second half of the program was even stronger. “Vibhakta” (The Division) visualizes the separation of Oneness into the male and female principles, and celebrates the energy and wholeness of the two that make one. Danced by Surupa Sen and the extraordinary Bijayini Satpathy, this marvelous dance of love and admiration for the Other filled me with joy.

With joy comes gratitude, so to close the program with “Aarati” (Offering) was most appropriate. Described as a salutation to Lord Jagannath and the goddess Vimala, presiding deities of Odissi dance, it was a poem of gratefulness — a sentiment fully shared by the audience, which directed its gratitude toward these human goddesses of Odissi with prolonged ovations.