Asian Music and Dance

Song of the City

It is 150 years since the birth of Rabindranath Tagore, Bengali writer, musician, artist and all-round Renaissance man. To mark the occasion, Akademi has commissioned and produced a new dance piece by Ash Mukherjee, a Bengali dancer and choreographer who’s a bit of an all-round Renaissance man himself, having trained principally in bharatanatyam and ballet, but also danced jazz, contemporary, folk and club styles too.

Song of the City is Mukherjee’s riff on Tagore: a mix of text, sound, image and dance inspired by the poems, the music and the man. It has a strikingly unusual setting – the spooky, subterranean vaults of the Southwark Playhouse, which impart a hushed underworld ambience to the event. Twin tunnels lead into darkness at the back of the performing area, which Mukherjee puts to good use. Sometimes he emerges from the tunnels like a ghost, a white-suited apparition reciting fragments of poetry. Sometimes they act as screens for enigmatic film projections of large eyes and ears (eerily, the tunnels themselves begin to feel like eye sockets or ear holes). 

Most pertinently, though, he uses the tunnels to convey his underlying theme of duality. At the beginning of the piece, two dancers are seen in the mouth of the tunnels: Kim Amundsen and Gian Luca Loddo, both ballet-trained and both kitted out in Renaissance frock coats and tights, like dandy highwaymen with extra-supple hips. According to Mukherjee’s programme notes, they represent the creative and practical sides of the artistic spirit – though in fact they’re quite hard to differentiate other than Amundsen being blond in white tights, and Loddo dark in black. In any case, over the course of the piece, there is some antagonism between them that is resolved through the intervention of a third dancer, Kamala Devam.

Devam is a striking presence. A former dancer with the Shobana Jeyasingh company, she has both bharatanatyam and contemporary training, and Mukherjee’s hybrid style suits her best: she looks in command, even imperious. In fact, with her long black dress slashed with red, her taut hair and flashing eyes, with lips and fingers daubed crimson, she has the air of a mythic Martha Graham heroine in some psychodrama of conflict and catharsis.

That is the look, at least; the substance of the choreography is rather thinner. Mukherjee is good on detail: constructing fascinating phrases that cut together the long limbs and leaps of ballet with the rhythmic precision of bharatanatyam, adding jazzy hip juts, or varying the dynamics between pulse and flow. But he struggles with the bigger picture: it’s pretty hard to understand what’s going on, or why. Moreover, while Amundsen and Loddo are excellent for the more balletic inflections of the style, they lose precision and force when it comes to the weightier, rhythmical or gestural elements.

The choreographic indistinctness is not helped by the overload of other features: projections on walls and floors, voices and whispers, songs and poems, musical mixes in which composer Arun Ghosh occasionally threads his way across the stage playing his clarinet, like an undulating snake charmer. Interestingly, the music on its own – which layers Bengali song with electric beats and freeform elaborations – works fine; perhaps our ears can simply tolerate more complexity than our eyes. The piece as a whole, though, is over-egged with multiple media and could do with more singularity of purpose. Perhaps Mukherjee should try to be a bit less Renaissance.



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