Akademi’s Choreogata is a professional development programme commissioning two artists each year to create new, contemporary South Asian dance works. This programme at the Purcell Room presented this year’s commissions from Subhash Viman Gorania and Kamala Devam, alongside two new classical solos from Arunima Kumar and Urja Desai Thakore made possible by the parallel Utkarsh commissioning fund.
Subhash Viman’s self-performed solo Shān starts off promisingly, the dancer hidden behind a white screen that he pushes against, peeps over, and eventually inches around hanging by his fingers to end up squatting on a series of cubes. A brief game of hide-and-seek-cum-Twister ensues, Viman hopping in and out of the poles of light that illuminate each of his cubes in turn. It’s a witty, playful start to the piece and it’s rather a pity that this playful mood is soon shrugged off in favour of a stygian lighting and a mood of generalised angst.
The sombre and the melancholic will always have their place on the dance stage and there are many works that address bleak themes in compelling ways. A widespread pitfall for young artists employing contemporary idioms, however, is in using these visual and thematic tropes as shorthand markers for serious art. In the case of Shān, we rapidly lose a sense of where Viman locates himself relative to the Chinese poem from which the piece takes its name, or the teachings of Confucius referred to in the programme note. The idea of the ‘shadow in the soul’ is largely depicted by means of a rather literal silhouette of the dancer projected on the set, which forms half of a pleasant but not particularly illuminating duet. It would be good to see the curiosity of the opening section explored over the rest of the work, with less angst and more play.
A more directly personal response to poetry is portrayed by Urja Desai Thakore in her new work Kabir and I. This delicate solo finds Thakore taking solace in the words of the medieval saint-poet Kabir following the death of a loved one and is performed with a beautiful, poignant minimalism. The solo is no flashy show of technique; instead, we find Thakore in intimate, meditative mode, allowing the focus to fall on her expressive capabilities more than her fine footwork. A thoughtful, captivating solo that deserves to tour widely.
The second Utkarsh-supported piece in the programme is Arunima Kumar’s TriDevi – The Divine Trio, three kuchipudi studies of the goddesses Rati, Sita and Sati. Kumar has a strong technical foundation for her abhinaya: clean and grounded footwork forming a strong base for her supple, expressive upper body and arms. The three narrative excerpts-in-progress are pleasingly watchable; a short coda in which Kumar traces the shape of a woman’s face onto a large piece of paper with her feet added very little to the piece and could usefully be dropped.
Kamala Devam’s agile contemporary trio Ankusha closed the evening. Taking its name from the prod or goad held by Lord Ganesha, the piece suggests the pushes and pulls that spur us on through life’s journey. The theme is ripe for physical exploration and the three bold performers (Devam herself, Tamzen Moulding and Franco Conquista) are thrillingly fearless in their animated contacts, vigorous pulls and robust pushes.
Two particular sections stand out: a duet in which a blindfolded Conquista is gently coaxed about the stage by Devam in which he eagerly sweeps and slides blindly into the unknown, saved from disaster by her soft, sure touches; and the succeeding duet between Conquista and Moulding in which Moulding tries repeatedly to clamber onto a doggedly pacing Conquista for snatches of bodily enforced affection. Ankusha is a mature and assured work, and demonstrates that weighty themes can be addressed with a playful spirit.