I NDIAN modern dance may seem like an oxymoron. But for a country as steeped in centuries-old traditions as India, the rebellious choreographer Chandralekha embodies modern dance. After a successful career as a classical dancer in the 1960s, the Madras-based choreographer abandoned the traditional Bharatanatyam for an intriguing, captivating synthesis of classical dance, yoga, and martial arts.
Chandralekha's choreographic style pares traditional dance down to its essentials, and though she uses a fairly recognizable vocabulary, she puts it to the service of her own expressive purposes, shunning narrative for sheer physicality. Gone are most of the idiom's ornamental flourishes and esoteric religious symbols, leaving a style of movement that is almost spartan in its rigor and clarity. Conceptually, Chandralekha tends to address issues of the present, and she is considered one of the most importan t voices in the Indian counterculture.
Chandralekha's excellent seven-member company, the Chandralekha Group, made its United States debut at Jacob's Pillow in Becket, Mass., on Aug. 26 as part of a tour that includes New York. The choreographer's new work, the 90-minute ''Yantra,'' was given three performances accompanied by two superb Indian percussionists and vocalist Aruna Sayeeram.
After a stunning vocal prologue by Sayeeram, the silver-haired Chandralekha opened the work with the recitation of a text that expressed its perspective of beauty as seen through geometrical relationships. She calls it ''an homage to energies and the visual power of the triangle,'' and in fact, the triangle is everywhere in ''Yantra'' - a large black and red geometric backdrop, floor patterns of both dancers and the musicians, three lunging dancers with arms outstretched to form the apex of a pyramid. And though there are seven dancers in the full ensemble, it is a core group of three that are given the most expressive intensity.
T HE first visual image is of three women sitting on a dimly lit stage, in a line front to back. Ever so slowly, they begin to move like some multiheaded, multilimbed deity, a personification of the image many Westerners have of Indian religion. But from there, the piece expands and diverges.
An infectious, rhythmic tattoo as feet slap against the floor sends the dancers gliding across stage into intricate floor patterns. These appear and reappear in various guises to act as a kind of refrain throughout the work. The first such section, arising abruptly from stillness, is electrifying. The final section, longer and more developed, is invigorating.
The dancers cover a remarkable amount of space in wide-legged plis. A line dance showcases the most adventurous footwork. Chandralekha often has half the dancers performing movements facing front with the other half facing back, offering a fascinating two-sided perspective.
The slow sections are sculptural in quality. Five women and one man go in and out of pairings, eyes locking, faces almost touching, arms entwined. A second male enters twice with more athletic movement - kicks and leaps, lunges and backbends with impressive flexibility.
Despite its apparently radical nature in India, ''Yantra'' will hardly seem terribly modern to the American viewer. The sway-back postures, hyperextended hand gestures and sculptural poses still seem very traditional. It is slow moving and slightly repetitive, but quite appealing.
Chandralekha's dancers are first rate, extremely focused and controlled, tight in the unisons and flexible technically. They are rock solid in the rapidly changing meters and tempos, amplifying certain beats with their feet. They also are able to pick up on the brilliantly vocalized tabla rhythms from one of the percussionists.
Ultimately, the focus of ''Yantra'' is inward, on the power of energy ''curled and coiled inside the body,'' as the choreographer wrote in the program notes. The work ends with each dancer a solitary entity, spinning slowly on his or her own axis.
* The Chandralekha Group performs today and Sept. 10 as part of the Danspace Project in New York.