Upeka's swansong

By Renuka Sadanandan

Whenever the inevitable comparisons have been made, Upeka has stoutly resisted being likened to her illustrious parents Chitrasena and Vajira, those erstwhile legends of dance in this country. She has always danced on her own terms, she has maintained and last Sunday she did it her way, bowing out with a wonderfully evocative performance.

She had chosen not to announce it beforehand, eschewing the fanfare that would follow such a statement of intent. So by and large, the audience was taken by surprise when at the repeat run of “Dancing for the Gods’, a production of the Kohomba Yak Kankariya by the Chitrasena Vajira Dance Foundation last weekend, the announcement came that it would be the last time Upeka would dance in a public performance. There was then a sense of heightened drama when clad all in black, Upeka appeared in the piece de resistance of the evening, the Kuveni Asne.

In the dressing room moments before the show. Pic by Dominic Sansoni/ThreeBlindMen

And how she danced. All the passion and emotion of what this meant, before an audience that seemed to be one with her in spirit. You can only dedicate your life to one subject, she is wont to say – no doubts in her as to what that had represented in over half a century of dance.

The Kuveni Asne depicts the tragedy of Kuveni, that figure of myth and legend so entwined with Lankan history. It is a dance of torment and betrayal, of an anguished Queen spurned by the King she loved grappling with her own dark emotions. Upeka’s performance powered by deep feeling and all the strength she brings to her dancing sent tingles down the spine.

As a production, Dancing for the Gods was a triumph. No doubt, it was a repeat, which many in the audience had chosen to see a second time but fine-tuned, perfectly calibrated, and intensely paced, it combined all the elements of theatre in a high octane show.

The carefully compiled programme provided enough detail for the unschooled as to the origins and meaning of the dance that was presented. How the ancient Kandyan dance ritual, the Kohomba Yak Kankariya, supposedly danced to cure the sickness of a king, had given birth to the art of Kandyan dance. Just as Chitrasena and Vajira had blazed a trail bringing the traditions and rituals of dance to the modern stage, this production skilfully blended the old and the new, the dancers and drummers reveling in their roles.

For Upeka, there are no regrets at having to say goodbye to the stage that she has trod since she was a child first in the footsteps of her parents, imbibing their essential values and discipline then taking on the mantle and spearheading the Chitrasena and Vajira Dance Foundation into a new era, a new home. But in recent years, the rigours of performance had seen her shedding some of those demanding roles in which she had shone, the Kandyan dance solos, her Saraswathie dance.

After- on stage Pic by Christopher Rebert

“The time had come,” she said post show, “there is a time, everyone must know.” She is glad to have gone out on a high, deeply moved by the spontaneous outpouring of emotion she was greeted with at the climax of the show, when after she turned to her dancers and drummers, to her family with gratitude, they embraced her and garlanded her and then members of the audience, friends and contemporaries streamed onstage to share this poignant moment with her.

As the curtain fell on Upeka’s dancing days, it was too the rising of the new star, her niece and grand-daughter of Chitrasena and Vajira, Thaji who clearly is now the company’s shining light. All sinuous grace, she strode the stage in a joyous performance that signalled of both her youth and artistry. Thaji is as dedicated to the dance, says Upekha, confident that along with the others in the family, the Chitrasena Vajira legacy is in good hands.

The gruelling dancer’s regimen may be over, no more the daily three month routine that preceded Dancing for the Gods but Upeka is upbeat. “I will still be dancing with my students,” she declares. And there are all the plans ahead that she is eager to bring to fruition. This week she and niece Heshma, who choreographed Dancing for the Gods head to Orissa to continue their ongoing collaboration with the Nrityagram dance company famed for their Odissi dance.

Back at the Wendt last Sunday, the audience left uplifted, carrying with them the image of a great dancer illuminating the stage, one last time.

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