Asian Music and Dance


Nitin Sawhney and Akram Khan share a lot of common ground – a rigorous classical training combined with an eagerness to cross boundaries and explore new terrain – so Confluence is an apt title for the piece they premiered as the Festival finale. In fact, it’s neither a new work nor an old one, but rather a remix of fragments from their past collaborations, re-presented in Fabiana Piccioli’s spare designs and backed by Nick Hillel’s digital video.

Programme notes talk of the encounter of artistic spirits, and Hillel’s projections – mystical aphorisms about creativity, abstract animations of flows and forcefields – point in the same direction; and so do various personal anecdotes that Khan and Sawhney recount on stage. But all this signalling of intention feels not only superfluous but sometimes detrimental: the projections have the feel of concept-album cover art, the stories teeter between suggestiveness and banality. Yet the real rewards of Confluence lie not in its messages but in its material: music and dance.

Sawhney plays guitar and keyboards, and his musical ensemble includes cello and violin as well as Indian flute, tabla and vocals. Musical styles and textures mesh exquisitely, from the melancholic modal songlines of a raga (hauntingly sung by young Nicki Wells) to the supple dissonances of a strummed Spanish guitar, or the insistent drive of repeated piano chords. Khan is just as layered and varied. He can combine mercurial flow with muscular punch, can integrate the flickering arms of kathak with the dynamic falls and lunges of martial arts. In one mesmerising solo, he simply bares the brilliance of his classical kathak technique. Khan also has a versatile ensemble; they join him for the splintering patterns of a group dance from Kaash (2003), or the rootless wanderings of last year’s Bahok.

If a theme emerges from Confluence, it is the idea of doubling. It’s there in the opening sequence (from 2005’s zero degrees), Khan and Sawhney recounting the same story in synchrony. It’s there when Andrej Petrovic and Set-Beol Lim meld into a single compound creature, when Navala Chaudhari becomes a puppeteer fused with ragdoll Eulalia Farro, or when Khan and Sawhney spar in a spoken interplay of rhythms. Even in Khan’s solos, the music is more partner than accompanist. Also striking is how Khan can take a simple motif, stick with it, and make it riveting. Many composers do that, but few dancers can. Khan excels at it: a plain circle of Sufi spins turns into a tour de force; a liquid ripple through the hands becomes a turbulent current of motion.

Confluence is a piecemeal work, but it does live up to its title: more than just a meeting, it is a meshing of minds and materials. But we don’t need that pointed out: the finesse of phrasing and exactitude of performance is enough. The magic lies in the small details, not the big ideas.



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