A Bharata-Natyam recital is composed of dances following each other in an order established by tradition:
Alarippu : consecration of the stage which becomes thus a replica of the Universe. Symbolical offerings are made at the four cardinal points. Alarippu is a purely technical dance without which a Bharata-Natyam recital cannot begin.
Stotram or Stuthi : dance compositions in praise of the important deities like Lord Ganesh, Lord Shiva, Goddess Saraswathi or Goddess Parvathi, who all represent some aspects of the one and only God, Brahman, the principal which is to be compared to the western conception of God.
Jathiswaram : purely technical dance on rhythmic patterns of 3, 4, 5, 7 or 9 beats.
Sabdam : the first item in a Bharata-Natyam recital which makes use of abhinaya. Narrative dance based on a short poem dedicated to a deity, with some rhythmic sequences.
Varnam : the most important dance of the recital, in which purely technical dance alternates with narrative dance. It used to last more than one and a half hour. Today, it has been reduced to approximately 30 minutes or even less.
Tillana : the final dance. It is purely technical, brilliant, fast and very difficult.
In every recital several "padams" are added, danced poems which bring some respite to the dancer. In the old times, a recital used to last between five to six hours without a break. Today most recital are reduced to less than two hours.