Chitrasena Dance Company delights with Dancing for the Gods

Dancing for the Gods. Chitrasena Dance Company. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre. January 15.

There are good reasons why Sri Lanka's Chitrasena Dance Company has a stellar reputation around the world. Despite being a modest company in size, its work is theatrical and polished, its production values are high and, above all, the company performers are first-rate artists. Dancing for the Gods, the company's latest production, played for just one night in Canberra after a season at the Sydney Festival. We were lucky to see them.

The show opened with a flourish as a masked dancer representing the demon Gara Yaka, accompanied by drummers and a lot of smoke, made a dramatic appearance through one of the side doors of the auditorium. Here was that delicious sense of occasion that dance from Asian countries can so often evoke. 

The opening sequence, in which Gara Yaka was summoned to bless the evening and those gathered to perform it and watch it, was quickly followed by a vibrant exchange between dancer Thaji Dias and four drummers. The sections that followed, which were introduced by clear explanatory announcements from behind the scenes, showed contrasting moods, moving from drama and ritual, through meditative moments, to celebratory passages. They included a particularly reflective solo from Dias, the principal dancer, demonstrating the power of dance as a meditative experience. It began in a circle of light and, throughout the solo, gentle lighting provided a sense of mystery. Dias has a very fluent style and a strong charismatic presence. She was a delight to watch throughout the evening.

While there was little to fault with any of the dancers, I especially admired the newest and youngest member of the company, Akila Palipana. I found his stage presence powerful, I loved his sense of rhythm and his clean, precise technique, and my eye was particularly taken with the way his whole body was involved at every moment, whether in stillness or action.

He was the masked demon dancer who appeared through the auditorium as the show opened, but it was in quieter segments, such as the male trio celebrating Ganesha, God of Knowledge and Remover of Obstacles, that his strong technique and expressive movements were so noticeable. He is a real talent, and I hope to see more of his dancing.

Dance in Sri Lanka dates back thousands of years and has its roots in ritual. In its current manifestation by Chitrasena Dance Company, it is a contemporary performing art that continues to honour that past. It has lost none of the ritualistic feeling, but through energetic choreography, compelling performances, evocative lighting and beautifully designed and made costumes, it becomes an exciting 21st-century art.