Asian Music and Dance

De-ciphering practice

Over the last eleven years Angika have been pushing the boundaries of bharatanatyam and testing how it can communicate to a twenty-first century audience.


ostmodern artists – and their postmodern academic siblings – like to ask the question: What is dance? Or: Is anything ever not dance? So when you go to see a self-consciously ‘po-mo’ performance as an informed audience you know that walking, talking, flashing audio-visual interludes, brushing your teeth on stage are all de rigueur. With an Angika performance, however, you know that you are in for an energising and spiritual experience, and that it is definitely going to be ‘dance.’ 

Suba Subramaniam and Mayuri Boonham, two dancers trained at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in London in classical bharatanatyam with Prakash Yadagudde, formed the company in 1997, to push the boundaries of classical practice by investigating the basic tenets of the ancient form. After initial support from The Place that helped them launch themselves as a professional company, and mentorship from Russell Maliphant and Jonathan Burrows, the two women have produced many duet and group evening-length and shorter performances that play with some of the staples of bharatanatyam. Their work, they say, falls more into the abstract category, rather than narrative-based. Generating geometric imagery and group technique, instead of the more traditional solo work with expressive abhinaya, constantly pushes their artistic boundaries. 

“How would you look if something that you were completely devoted to was standing right in front of you; what would your most raw expression of emotion be?”

In their first piece Sudarshana, they explored abhinaya, asking minutely inquisitive questions about bharatanatyam. Now they’ve become subtler about their facial and gestural expressiveness. Says Mayuri in her articulate fashion, “We’ve become remorseless about being economical. About simplifying deliberately because the form has so much to say.” The two dancers worked as a duo for six years, and then started to explore group work. In Bhakti, a fifty-minute expression of pure devotion, says Mayuri, “Universal spirituality drives us. It’s not pretentious, it feeds us, and it’s a dedication to the form.” For fifty minutes, the dancers rarely pause for breath. Suba explains that in the piece all of the dancers express their devotion to the thing that moves them the most, rather than to a God or Goddess as would be more common in traditional bharatanatyam. “We felt like we had to bhakti-fy everything,” she says, explaining the impetus of the piece, laughing at the expression. “How would you look if something that you were completely devoted to was standing right in front of you; what would your most raw expression of emotion be?”

The two have been Associated Artists at The Place, and have made work twice at Choreodrome. They are now managed by Turtle Keys, and recently the Arts Council have offered them Regularly Funded Artist status, complimenting the commitment of the company to producing quality work, instead of what they themselves think of as yearly ‘conveyor belt’ pieces, and giving them the opportunity to stop worrying about where the next project would be funded from. They find themselves more and more enamoured of the idea of making dance that is socially and culturally relevant. They think more now about what is needed from them as South Asian artists in Britain, as artists committed to conveying a form they love. They confess that the growing support, the larger tours, and the increased confidence of the funders in their work is humbling and inspiring. 

When you ask dancers, in general, to say a few words, you usually get more like a full-length novel. Mayuri and Suba, however, come across as especially articulate, never short of passionately expressed ideas about their work, or for reasons for being who they are and doing what they do. 

In Cypher, the work they will perform in the autumn, and then tour next year, they are working with a methodology borrowed from Jonathan Burrows, someone they still recognise as their special mentor. They are beginning to work with voice, recitation and singing, devices they have not explored thoroughly before and which should inevitably take their work to a new level. “The methodology,” explains Mayuri, “is that we work within set structures, patterns and counterpoints. Taking layers out and putting them back in again but in set structures. For example, can you sing and do something opposite to what you’re singing about?” says Suba, clearly excited about her work. “It’s such a wonderful idea. You’re dancing counterpoints, creating a soundscape or musical background, and what you see is a juxtaposition of separate elements.” They explain that this investigation of counterpoints and juxtapositions is painstakingly slow work, leading to serious questioning of the logic and concept behind their work.  

Doing contemporary work with a classical form is never easy, and diasporic artists have several issues to grapple with, including much sneering and shrugging from classical and indigenous artists. Another challenge for South Asian contemporary work is to avoid using classical hand gestures, footwork, sculptures and expressions that because of their displacement from their traditional context and structures end up at best, producing the so what factor from a bored audience, or at worst evoking orientalist images of an exotic land. Angika have the opportunity with Cypher to push the boundaries of their beloved form. As in Ether, where they challenged the use of space, closeness, stillness, changes in level, their new work would benefit from undertaking an active questioning of both traditional and contemporary structures. Instead of producing work that is pretty and frothy, which they dislike as much as innovation merely for its own sake, the two dancers with their selected dancers have the chance to push the boundaries of narrative and abstraction, form and flow, spatial boundaries and intimacy, hopefully taking their work to a new level. 

Company Productions

Ether — 2006
Bhakti — 2004
Soul of Light — 2004 
Urban Temple — 2003
Pulse of Tala — 2001 
The-Triple-Hymn — 2000 
Kala —1999 
Sudarsana — 1998 



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