Asian Music and Dance

Cultivating Young Choreographers

What happens when an aspiring choreographer reaches a point in their career and artistic development when they are ready to develop a compelling idea further, but need practical guidance and a financial investment to make it possible? We look here at one programme that is providing support for young choreographers.

A n article on young artists in our autumn issue brought out the value of programmes provided by arts organisations in the UK. The London-based Akademi, with the assistance of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, has been supporting artists with a background in classical South Asian dance with its programme of Choreographic Commissions. 

“The programme…is tailored for the individual.”

The programme, in the last of its three years, is tailored for the individual. It provides a mentor to support the creative process; a platform for artists to present their work; production support; and, of crucial importance, strategic support (with the help of producer Bobby Tiwana) in terms of marketing and communications, with access to promoters, programmers, venues and funders so that an artist can gain experience of how to tour and pitch their work. The cash sum that comes with the commission provides a start-up and the recipient is given assistance with applications to Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts funding programme. So far these grant applications have all been successful.

“[It enables| artists to take their own directions and take risks…”

The programme is designed to be confidence-building and flexible, enabling artists to take their own directions and take risks without the pressure of having to produce a finished performance piece, so that they can choose to prepare anything from a studio-sharing to a tour-ready work. A glance at previous recipients indicates the range of artists the programme has supported. Kamala Devam was able to work on developing new movements from acrobatics that informed her choreography and she has gone on to form a new dance company. Shane Shambhu was given the opportunity to explore and incorporate other artistic practices such as theatre and film into his bharatanatyam base. Divya Kasturi created Forgot Your Password?, a theatrical-dance work integrating hologram technology, contemporary South Asian dance and vocals which was premièred at the Southbank Centre.

This year (2016‒17) Akademi has awarded commissions, chosen by an independent open application process, to three young dancers for solo choreographies and one for a group choreography. 

Shivaangee Agrawal

Shivaangee is currently studying contemporary dance technique, choreography and choreology at Trinity Laban. Shivaangee’s choreographic work, with its bharatanatyam base, is informed by her experience of other styles including classical Japanese and contemporary dance. “As a bharatanatyam dancer, I want to discover the potential of this dance form to be a contemporary practice.” 

“Only…[the] vulnerable use walking as a means of travel in Bangalore…”

The piece she is creating was born out of vivid memories of her recent daily commute to her dance classes through the streets of Bangalore. “Until that point, I had taken for granted my ability to simply move through space as I wanted. Only those who are vulnerable use walking as a means of travel in Bangalore, and walking compounds that vulnerability.” Shivaangee is exploring “how movement and choreography can communicate the experience of these powerless players in the game that is space” and her aim is to touch the audience in some way, though not in a didactic manner. She imagines using objects and digital projections in the performance arena.

Manuela Benini

“…the world is full of chaos and chance…”

Last October, Brazilian-born movement artist Manuela Benini took part in a choreographic programme with Annie-B Parson (Big Dance Theater, David Bowie’s Lazarus). Parson’s work is notable for its synthesis of dance with theatre, music, text and visual design. This has been an inspiration for Manuela: “I started thinking about the use of text within the kathak context.” She is looking at moving beyond the traditional stories and the recitation of kathak bols to new ways of creating a kathak movement vocabulary, using text and juxtapositions of images and language, with different styles of music, rhythms, found text and recorded conversations. Further, “in kathak, I have always looked for harmony in the dance, but the world is full of chaos and chance, so: what happens when I use ideas of chaos and disruption to create kathak movement vocabulary?” 

This commission is enabling Manuela to create a new solo multi-media piece that she hopes can go on to tour, both nationally and internationally.

Parbati Chaudhury

The grim reality of homelessness has become inescapable in the UK. Parbati’s piece – working title Growing Pains – examines the intensifying housing crisis that is leading to these alarming levels of homelessness. Director Ken Loach’s seminal TV play, Cathy Come Home, has made a lasting impression on her.

“The challenge will be to devise a piece that can demonstrate the weight of the subject matter, which is vast and complex.” She envisages a series of scenes that highlight the fragility of a home – this basic need – in our current times. “I’m also hoping to burst the perception that certain sections of society are insulated from these issues.” This issue affects a cross-section of her generation.

She is working with a combination of genres, planning to “heighten both the abstract and abhinaya aspects of kathak, and cross them over with song in the style of musical theatre, and speech, as I feel these mediums will be able to effectively deliver certain satirical messages.”

“…sharing some of the stories of those who find themselves sleeping rough.”

She is working with the homelessness charity St Mungo’s in her research. She hopes to be able to highlight the complexities and counter continuing indifference by sharing some of the stories of those who find themselves sleeping rough.

“This sensitive piece is going to be a bold step for me as both a performer and a choreographer as I try to develop my own process and explore new narrative, movement dynamics and presentation avenues. I’m excited, curious and terrified, but that all sounds about right.”

Raheem Mir

Raheem gave a subtle, nuanced performance of a classic mujra dance from the film Umrao Jaan last autumn as part of Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance at Rich Mix in an evening hosted by Akademi. Raheem is deeply appreciative of the freedom Akademi has given him. “Don’t restrict a young dancer, it’s an escape for so many people – it’s one of the most euphoric feelings. I couldn’t have done it without freedom.”

“…why do we have to apply gender to dance?”

Raheem is currently completing an MA in Contemporary Performance and Practice at Royal Holloway University of London. He is from a Pakistani Punjabi Muslim background and grew up surrounded by women, dancing at weddings, loving watching Madhuri Dixit on the screen, and throughout his dance career, there was a feeling there was no real gender in dance. As he grew older he encountered more cultural expectations and boundaries. When he chose a female sringara in classical dance workshops, he was told no, he had to be a man. “This got me thinking: why do we have to apply gender to dance? That’s what caused me to create this piece. I see myself as male but don’t see why I can’t perform as female.” The working title of his piece for the commission is Dhanak (‘Rainbow’) and, with Raheem’s dance and physical theatre background, it is “more of a theatre piece”. 

Raheem hopes to take his dance and gender work and tour it, to India and Pakistan, where there is a lot of research in gender and hijra communities. “I want people to speak about freedom in dance and not shut someone away who wants to wear particular things… it’s up to us to carry on the tradition (he has trained with Gauri Sharma Tripathi and Sujata Banerjee)… I want to take what I’ve learned and go forward with it… bringing other things into this world, through a different aspect. I want it to be me, not the kathak dancer. I want people to see me.”

Seeta Patel

“…how…Western…choreographies…might be translated into bharatanatyam vocabulary.”

Seeta Patel has recently been performing in India, in Delhi and in the home of bharatanatyam, Chennai. A classical practitioner, for this group choreography commission she is exploring ballet and contemporary dance ensemble work. “I was interested in seeing how existing Western classical and contemporary ensemble choreographies that have had several interpretations, e.g. Swan Lake, Giselle, The Rite of Spring, etc., might be translated into bharatanatyam vocabulary.” Ensemble work is a new step for her: “I am excited to have the opportunity to work with the bharatanatyam vocabulary on multiple technically experienced bodies.”

From challenging aesthetic explorations to social engagement, these young artists have so much to offer. It is clearly important to maintain support, even – or especially – in times of austerity and trouble.



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