Asian Music and Dance

Sculpting Space – Mayuri Boonham

Mayuri Boonham, Artistic Director of ATMA, talks to Donald Hutera about her passion for delving into metaphysical concepts to draw out movement material, like the origins of the universe in Ex Nihilo (Latin: ‘Out of Nothing’), her latest creation.

Mayuri Boonham isn’t one to shy away from a high concept. Ex Nihilo and The Human Edge, premièred at the Royal Ballet’s Linbury Studio Theatre last April, marked this deeply-dedicated choreographer’s most ambitious project to date. Inspired by the creation myths in ancient Indian sacred texts, her aim in these two dovetailing dances was a poetic metaphor for nothing less than the origins of the universe and the human race. The result was, unsurprisingly, one of the biggest creative challenges she’s yet faced.  

“Normally choreographers are absorbed in making one piece at a time,” Mayuri says. “Creating two works simultaneously, as I did, was mad and intense but I learned so much on so many levels. It required a high level of practical efficiency. For one thing, I had to manage my time to work with different sets of dancers in different buildings!” 

 Mayuri has for the past two years had the privilege of being a choreographic affiliate of the Royal Opera House. Prior to this culminatory double bill, she’d created two other works there. Vac II, presented as part of a series called Draftworks, was her first crack at devising a piece with Royal Ballet dancers. “Their talent and physical ability was thrilling,” she says, “enabling me to push the movement material past my expectations.” Forsaken, seen as part of the annual Deloitte Ignite events, was a collaboration with ballet dancers, opera singers and Indian musicians which, as she modestly puts it, “broke a few boundaries”.

This last phrase is central to how Mayuri operates. “Each work I’ve created to date has come with its own creative challenges. Part of this has to do with challenges inherent in collaborations between different disciplines, and partly the subject matter I choose.” Her fundamental desire, however, is to constantly push herself “to encompass things recently learned, or to step into the unknown wherever possible.”

For her final commission as an Opera House affiliate, Mayuri’s goal was to make a bigger piece with higher production values than she’d previously had access to. In order to get to that next creative level, she opted for a subject that would give her enough ‘juice’ to sustain a longer work. Her choice, the Rig Veda Hymn of Creation, she deems “both perfect and extremely difficult” because of the abstract philosophical questions it raises. “I was really challenged, firstly to understand it, and then to search for movement to express its ideas.” The choreographic stretch this entailed was sizeable. “I love bharatanatyam,” Mayuri says, “but I knew I had to immerse myself in various dance vocabularies to arrive at a work that would transcend any specific language and gender. The concept simply demanded the expression of something strange and unknown.” 

“ …a work that would transcend any specific language and gender”

In the septet Ex Nihilo, performed by dancers recruited from Mayuri’s own company ATMA, her underlying notion was ‘shedding the human’ via gusts of striking, odd-angled ensemble motion delivered in Guy Hoare’s shadowy lighting. The use of bodies, as the Guardian’s Judith Mackrell so eloquently observed, was of ‘both shattered remnants of ancient temple statuary and random particles of matter’. In The Human Edge, based on the story of the first goddess Sati’s self-annihilating love for Shiva, the human element returned as embodied by the moonlighting Royal Ballet dancers Yuhui Choe and Kenta Kura. Here, to quote Mackrell, Mayuri combined ‘the grounded geometries and formalised eloquence of bharatanatyam with the airborne intimacies of a western pas de deux.’ 

Mayuri’s principal task as a dance-maker and director was to connect the two pieces of choreography conceptually as part of a full evening’s work, and one that would have no interval. It all boiled down to how she structured time – both within her own creative process and within the dances – and content. There was also the question of a soundtrack. For this she turned to the internationally-acclaimed American composer Bill Fontana, renowned for using sound as a sculptural medium to transform perceptions of visual and architectural space, and Midival Punditz, the joint name of the New Delhi electronica duo Gaurav Raina and Tapan Raj. Fontana’s contribution to Ex Nihilo included recordings from inside the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland, which Mayuri knew might be hard on some audience’s ears but nevertheless held massive relevance. “The concept required something really different,” she says, “something that would suggest aeons of time that we don’t really know anything about.” The Human Edge, by way of contrast, needed and received from Midival Punditz a warmer, more melodic edge.

Reviews for the double bill tended to be positively slanted yet mixed; something Mayuri took on the chin. “Not everyone got what I was trying to do,” she concedes, “and that’s fine. I’m planning to make some choreographic revisions to help the journey become clearer, tighter and more explicit.”


Mayuri’s parents – her father a goldsmith/jeweller and her mother a traditional Indian housewife – emigrated from Gujarat, India to East Africa which is where she was born. The family became emigrants again, escaping Idi Amin’s regime and settling in Birmingham when Mayuri was two years old. As a very religious Hindu and an avid reader, it was her mum who introduced her to the evocative legends and myths of Indian gods as well as to the devotional slokas and verses in Sanskrit and Gujarati that remain close to her heart. “What was most captivating for me as a child was not the drama of the stories,” Mayuri recalls, “but the universal meaning behind them that she’d carefully explain to me. 

“Not everyone got what I was trying to do…and that’s fine”

“I loved dancing and making dance,” she says. “I knew clearly from an early age that that’s what I wanted to do.” Early classical Bollywood dances performed by Sandhya, Padmini, Waheeda Rehman and Vyajanthimala were a great inspiration, as were V. Shantarams’s films. “I would copy many of these dances and perform them at community events where, almost always, there’d be other children mimicking Michael Jackson’s Thriller or the latest Bollywood dance hit.” But it was the youngsters who’d come from out of town and present short bharatanatyam dances that most intrigued her.

“When I met Prakash Yadagudde…I felt I’d finally met my dance guru”

 Mayuri only started training in bharatanatyam in her teens, largely because there were no proper classes available in Birmingham in the 1980s. At one point she was learning both kathak with Nahid Siddiqui and bharatanatyam under Chitralekha Bolar, but it was the latter discipline that most attracted her. “When I met Prakash Yadagudde at the Bhavan Centre I felt I’d finally met my dance guru,” she says, summing up her background. She still attends classes with him whenever the opportunity arises.

Now, Mayuri says, it’s the love of Indian philosophy and art that drives her own creative impulses. European art has also helped her to cross-fertilise and understand her ideas, while mentors such as Jonathan Burrows, Wayne McGregor and Russell Maliphant have helped shape her professional choreographic development. But nothing, she says, would’ve been possible without the guidance and support of her husband Nigel, a sculptor. “Entering his artistic world and meeting his circle of creative friends was an education that has greatly enhanced my own thinking and creativity.”

Mayuri has recently made a BBC film with Michael Palin called Remember Me, a three-part murder-mystery to be aired this autumn. She also continues to tour works like Erhebung, described as ‘a dance-sculpture-sonic art installation’, and the Royal-commissioned double bill.  

“I’ve been doing this all my life…it’s a vocation”

She offers sound advice to budding dance-makers, regardless of the genres in which they specialise. “Start small and keep working; one thing follows another inevitably. Always try to have an interesting subject that can feed into your choreography on many levels, and foster your discrimination by seeing as much dance as you can.” As for herself, she says, “I’ve been doing this all my life and can’t imagine anything else. It’s a vocation. As I grow older and more experienced, I find the creative process that leads to the work itself increasingly richer and more interesting, so I’m continually hooked.” 



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