Justin McCarthy choreographs an unusual dance fusion act
Normally I work strictly within the parameters of Bharatanatyam," says Bharatanatyam teacher Justin McCarthy, a few days before his troupe performed at the Ananya Dance Festival in Delhiâs 16th-century Purana Qila, "but I was asked to do an amalgamation of several styles. I thought that I'â choose styles that look and feel different from each other."
He chose Mayurbhanj Chhau, Kathak and Bharatanatyam. "The Kathak dancer spends most of the time vertical; Bharatanatyam is more open [in posture]; and Chhau is circular, round," McCarthy explains. "And then the next step was to find a â âthemeâ is an awful word â conceptualisation which could interestingly accommodate these three styles."
He examined the Puranas, the Ramayana and Mahabharata to understand the Hindu idea of the universe so as to recreate it on stage. "The actual physical descriptions of the universe" he says, were "pretty varied. So what I did was a culling process."
Starting with the vibration of "Om", when "something comes into being", McCarthy says, he shifted to Mount Meru, the axis mundi or centre of the world. Next were the several lokas, of which he chose three â "Rakshasalok, where the demons abide; Earth, prithvi or Bhimlok, the world of men; Akash or Devalok, the sky" â and "sabse upar Vaikuntha, a rarefied place". These levels were to correspond with stages of the performance.
"Itâs a very straightforward, upward-moving thing," the teacher-choreographer explains.
"I didn't want it to be heavy. Both in literature and in sculpture you find stimulating and joyful aspects of this description [of the universe]. I wanted to avoid being ponderous, serious."
And it wasnât: the athleticism of the Chhau, and the restrained beauty of the Kathak, within the framework of a slightly softened Bharatanatyam, with a largely male cast and with no distracting props, made sure of that.
McCarthy was born in the USA, but has lived in India for three decades â of which one decade he spent learning Bharatanatyam and two teaching it, at the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra in Delhi.