A Bharatanatyam performance usually has the following items though much of it is not performed now due to lack of time. The credit for shaping the items and setting them largely goes to the Tanjore quartet Chinnaiah, Ponnaiah, Shivanadam and Vadivelu. Following is a list of the items with a small write-up describing the uniqueness of each item.
The word alarippu is a Telugu word which means blooming or blossoming. It is the first item that a dancer learns as a student. It is a simple item that helps the dancer to warm up so that she can perform the more complicated items with ease. The dancer moves each part of her body, eyes, head, shoulders, hands by turn, and then the whole body. In the end, there is a small korvai with which it ends. It is performed as an introductory piece in a dance repertoire.
As the name suggests, it is an item composed of nritta. Korvais are set to lilting melodious swara patterns. Korvais are combinations of adavus. The first korvai in a jatiswaram is called a teermanam. A graceful movement known as "mai adavu" separates each korvai. This item is composed of pure dance and has no abhinaya.
In this item, the dancer introduces abhinaya for the first time. Abhinaya composed to simple sahityam is usually separated by easy korvais. This item is usually in misra chapu taalam and the most common ones are in praise of Lord Krishna.
Varnam is the central piece of a Bharatnatyam repertoire. A varnam is the most important piece of a Bharatanatyam recital full of complicated jathis and intense abhinaya. It is a true test of a dancer's skill and mastery of both nritta and nritya.
In Carnatic music, there are two types of Varnam:
Pada Varnam -
Tana varnams are used for dance choreography. This varnam starts with a teermanam executed in all the three speeds called the "trikala jathi". In the first half, each line of the sahityam (lyrics) is interlinked with one or two complicated teermanams rendered by the nattuvannar. The second half from the charanam is in faster tempo. The charana swaras are set to korvais and the corresponding sahityam is set to abhinaya.
As the name suggests a keertanam is a pure abhinaya item usually full of Bhakti rasa the dancer extols the virtues of the Lord and seeks salvation. It is in medium tempo and sometimes is interlinked with some small adavu combinations to increase its charm. A famous keertanam is Natanam Aadinaar in Vasantha in praise of Lord Shiva. It describes the cosmic dance of the Lord in Chidambaram at the request of the three sages.
A Padam is a pure expressional piece. It is full of Shringara Rasa or the love and love-related sentiment. It is nayika-based and usually is a dialogue between the nayika or her sakhi and the Lord. The sakhi or the friend usually describes to the Lord how the nayika is suffering due to his separation and beseeches him to meet her to remove her sorrow. It is in medium tempo and the abhinaya is very intense. The padams are usually in Tamil or Telugu language.
A Javali is also a pure expressional piece in fast tempo. The lyrics are usually in Telugu. This item too is nayika-based but differs from padam in that it is in faster tempo and is in colloquial language. The nayika addresses the Lord at the human level and often it is a khandita Nayika who is expressed in Javali.
This is an item based on the great text of the same name written by the renowned author Jayadeva. It is called ashtapadi because each section is composed of eight lines (ashta-8 and pad-verse). It is a dialogue between Radha and Lord Krishna in Sanskrit and has spiritual significance. The sakhi or the friend here symbolizes the Guru who shows the way for complete salvation.
The verses are full of shringara and this is an item where the spiritual aspect of dance is brought to light when shringara is subtly mixed with extreme devotion and spiritualism.
Thillana, most often the concluding piece of any Bharatanatyam recital is full of sculpturesque movements and nritta patterns. An item where the pure nritta combines with laasya to form a complete whole, it starts with graceful body movements that eventually give way to execution of korvais. There is then a small piece of abhinaya at the end.