The seventy-minute world premiere of Kathakbox at the mac, Birmingham was the result of an eighteen-month project, led by British-based kathak dancer/choreographer Sonia Sabri. Featuring seven artists-collaborators including Sabri herself and musician-husband Sarvar Sabri, it took place and to an excited and expectant full house on the Company’s home turf.
Kathakbox successfully portrayed the ‘meeting points’ or the artistic parallels between the performative genres of kathak, contemporary dance, hip-hop culture, spoken word and beatboxing, making a case for the relevance of kathak in a twenty-first-century multi-cultural, multi-linguistic and multi-movement-based Britain.
Not narrative-driven, but rather a vocalisation of a hybridised dialogue between various artistic styles and how they correlate and overlap formed the main thrust of the piece. A key element running throughout was the confrontation of the ‘tick-box’ culture. From the opening motif of each artist occupying their position within a square, each performer, in turn, demonstrated his or her particular skill. This was mirrored by the chessboard check design suggesting identities confined and constrained by boundaries, too anxious to think and move ‘outside the box’.
However, as the performance developed, there was a loosening-up between the artists: first tentative and then increasingly more confident as they engaged with each other’s artistic discipline. From Geering’s hip-hop sequence that involved him balancing on his head while his torso and legs were slanted towards the adjacent box, to Marcina Arnold and Shan Bansil’s expressive musical vocalisations and beatboxing exchanges, Kathakbox ‘challenged’ the frontiers between static and ‘fixed’ traditions of both dance and music.
The most interesting elements were the new conversations by artists taking on unfamiliar forms and lending a new twist to their personal dance and musical vocabularies. For instance, in one particular section of Kathakbox, the audience witnessed how all of the artists, regardless of their dance training (Amayra Fuller and Suzanne Grubham, contemporary dancers), executed the tatkar; the rhythmic compositions of kathak, and how they altered these cadences through the use of clapping with their hands and body parts rather than the conventional employment of footwork. Even though this device of striking body parts for rhythm creation has already been executed in many of Sabri’s previous compositions, its use here was particularly striking. It also reiterated Sabri’s vision of the inter-connections between these artistic modes.
The second skilful and enjoyable feature was the use of humour throughout this composition. For example, in one arrangement Sabri and Geering took it in turns to exhibit the conventional aspects of kathak and hip-hop, but could visually laugh at themselves and the confinements of the ‘tick-box’ culture that they reside in.
Also worthy of mention was the sweet and sharp text of poet Zena Edwards and delivery in song lyrics by Marcina Arnold which raised the quality bar of the experience. The fact that there were no musical instruments, not even the ubiquitous tabla, and that all music was generated by the vocal chords of dancers and musicians was another first for South Asian dance.
Overall, Kathakbox was a thoughtful and entertaining piece that demonstrated Sabri’s vision of expanding kathak into new territories, particularly to embrace the urban environment so that Kathakbox becomes the song of Birmingham.
The performance left the viewer hungry for more, a sequel perhaps?