Asian Music and Dance

Sonia Sabri – Intelligent interpreter

Sonia Sabri is a dancer, choreographer and the artistic director of the company she set up in 2002.  Sabri maintains that kathak as a dance technique is open to evolution and her role as an artist is to develop the style from within.

In conversation, Shezad Khalil investigates how Sonia Sabri’s early experiences, training and inspirations have influenced and continue to motivate her dance career. 

Early Days

As a child, my inspirations for dance were twofold. Firstly, my parents were devoted to watching Bollywood films, so a great deal of my time, especially when returning from school, was spent watching Indian films and in particular their dance routines. My first experience of Indian dance or any kind of reference to the ‘skills’ of dance was primarily the actress Rekha. Rekha was my idol, that is, before I knew anything about classical dance.  Her grace, charisma and subtlety in dance routines was captivating and mesmerising – I even used to dress up like her, as in her film Umrao Jaan and dance in the living room pretending to be her. I knew all of her moves to all the songs in Umrao Jaan!

Secondly, I was also inspired by ‘Western’ dance.  My mother and I would spend a great deal of time watching the latest music videos of Michael Jackson. It was Michael’s energy in his performances and virtuoso moves that fascinated me. His dance sequences were innovative and spellbinding. So many people around me were also in awe of his inventive motions. But at this stage of my life I don’t ever remember thinking that I would become a dancer. However, I soon discovered that my father’s aspiration for me was to become a Bollywood actress, (to fulfill his own lost dream). With this mindset, he began to research into the required aptitudes for his daughter becoming a successful actress. Acting and dance skills were crucial – he was told. So I was sent to the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama as well as enrolling in and trialling various dance classes: modern – dancing to Michael Jackson’s songs of course! – jazz, and then finally by accident, kathak. In fact, both my father and I went to see a bharatanatyam class and as we had some time to spare before the class we ended up walking around and found a kathak class in progress. My father told me to try it since we were already there and since then I’ve never looked back. 

Training in Kathak

Even though I enjoyed dancing as a young child in the privacy of my home, I don’t ever remember thinking of becoming a professional dancer. I was extremely shy and introverted and at times found it quite horrific to attend classes. However, it was observing the passion and drive of my kathak teacher, Nahid Siddiqui, which proved infectious. She was enthralling and spoke about and danced kathak as if there was nothing else in the world. She was and still remains a beautiful and outstanding performer. Within a year I was totally hooked.  I was only 8 years old and I wanted to become just like her; to dance as exquisitely, and with as much joy and devotion. There was immense respect for Nahidji and many students were almost afraid of her as she was a perfectionist and would tell students off for not practising enough or repeating mistakes in class. But then when she took an interest in me and invited me to her home studio for regular training, a new door opened.

I used to train every day after school and would be instructed until late at night. This was great, especially when I was at primary school. On the other hand, secondary school was a completely different issue. While in secondary education life was unpleasant for me as I had very few friends who took a real interest in me and my dance. All my classmates seemed to be interested in were the latest pop idols, fashion and beauty which I found such a bore. The routine of going to school, coming home and going to my teacher’s to train till late, return home, do homework and then bedtime continued throughout my school and college life. I also continued to attend the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama at weekends as well as the dance training. From the age of 14 I began touring the world with my teacher’s company, which involved a great deal of time away. Fortunately, my school was very understanding and would allow me to take schoolwork on tour, even while studying for my GCSEs and A-levels. My family was also very supportive throughout my training and touring, although some of my relatives disapproved. In conversation with my parents, they would also remark that I was given far too much freedom like that of a ‘son’. Yet, some of these relations enjoyed hearing about my performances abroad. However, most of my family’s friends were very supportive and attended many of my concerts. I really loved travelling to different places and dancing to such warm audiences. It truly was one of the most exciting times of my life. And as a result of my training and hard work, I gave my debut performance (a two-hour solo) at the age of 17 in Lahore, then Karachi and finally in Birmingham.

On returning to my A-levels, I took Theatre Studies, English Literature and General Studies. Theatre Studies helped me incredibly as I learned about method acting which I applied to my dance work, namely with regard to abhinaya or expressional pieces. I also learned about lighting design, stage planning, stage direction, scriptwriting, stage production and management, skills that are necessary when conceiving and devising. For instance, the lighting design for Neon Dream in Parallels (2008) was done by me. English Literature has helped me to gain further understanding of text. I look out for rhythm, rhyme, imagery, sub-text and character development that continuously inform my dance work.  

After A-levels I could have gone on to university, but I felt that I had so many opportunities that I did not want to miss out on. During this period I trained with kathak guru Kumudini Lakhia, and worked with composer Nitin Sawhney and choreographer Peter Badejo. I was learning how to be a successful dance artist, manage a company, and most importantly I was developing my own individual and personal style of kathak. 

Observing Performance

As part of my training, I was encouraged by my teacher to observe performances of different styles. I saw presentations of kathak, bharatanatyam, flamenco, ballet, African, South Asian contemporary, Western contemporary, anything that looked good on publicity and was playing at a nearby theatre or arts centre. At such a young age, I did find Western contemporary an almost ‘alien’ form, with its lack of facial expressions and sense of focus. It felt that the contemporary dancer’s head was not thought about. In kathak, the head is given foremost attention. 

What I took away from these performances were means by which to explore innovative concepts. For example, ensemble choreography always fascinated me. During these dance recitals I would make drawings and take notes about aspects of group choreography so that I could use these later. 

I observed the style’s relationship with the musical score and other constituent features of a production; quality of performers, quality of dance vocabulary and so forth. All of these traits informed my practice consciously as well as subconsciously. 

The creation of the Sonia Sabri Company

I formed my dance company after I was married. It was actually the result of useful advice from many dance entrepreneurs and funding bodies that it would be easier to access funding to support my ideas including working with collaborators of various disciplines. Another reason for ‘setting up’ my company was that I would be taken more seriously as an artist.

My family had concerns whether this line of work would give me sufficient financial security. On the personal front they worried about in-law opposition to the dance profession. And luckily, I married my husband who is a musician and whose Indian ancestors were also musicians in the royal court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar.  My family was very proud of me when I did form the company, as it demonstrated both to them as well as their friends the seriousness of and dedication to my experimental work.

My dance composition started even before my company was set up. My first commissioned piece YOU (2000), was inspired by a miniature figurine encased in a rotating glass box that I saw as part of an exhibition at the Rembrandt Museum in Amsterdam. The statuette also had associations with the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), a condition whereby a person thinks that he or she is damaged in some way because they feel that they are not acknowledged or tolerated. It was a nervous venture as I’d never created a full-length piece on my own. I consulted a psychologist and devised YOU around a loose narrative. Though this piece was a descriptive account, I utilised other parts of the body such as the spine (with my back to the audience) as well as my hands and feet (with no other part of my anatomy visible). The reason for this was because I wanted to create something different and extend the conventional vocabulary. I performed this composition at The Place’s Resolution, 2000, to numerous positive press reviews. It then toured nationally as part of a two-part programme. 


I think each of my compositions has taken a step forward within both realms of classical and contemporary kathak. Parallels has been the most demanding of all of my work, especially within the contemporary ‘solo’ context as each piece illustrates a facet of kathak. Working with numerous choreographers has given an invigorating and refreshing appeal to my solo dance compositions. For instance, the way I choreographed and moved in Spill right the way through to the means by which I danced under the direction of other choreographers for pieces such as Neon Dream to Trail. Each piece demanded a key dynamic which provided variety for the spectator. Within the classical segment of Parallels, the pieces were self-choreographed and were not from nor resembled the traditional repertoire of kathak. The choreography was informed by contemporary techniques, which for many kathak audiences are intriguing. I would say that today I am much more confident in enquiring about the kathak form, playing with ideas, pushing the boundaries and challenging myself stylistically and conceptually. In addition, I also have a stronger desire to develop my own personal style of kathak as opposed to the earlier days of my dance career when I would constantly worry about whether what I was doing was correct or corrupt! I strongly believe that it is crucial for an individual dance artist to develop their own style as a way of extending the form rather than becoming a direct imitation of one’s dance teacher. For me, this is how art evolves. 

The Future…

In terms of the future, I would like to see myself generating new and pioneering ideas within kathak and reach all corners of the world with my work. I wish to inspire a new generation of dance artists to continue the evolution of the art (without fusing it with other dance styles!). I would like to touch the lives of people from different backgrounds. I would like to make a contribution to the world of dance in a powerful way – in the same way that dance has made such an impact on my life and my self.

Choreographers, teachers and mentors

Shobana Jeyasingh

Choreographed Curve, Gaze, Whip for SSCo’s first production. Also Neon Dream – her first solo in kathak. A great movement analyst and knows how to push a dancer to their limit.

Kumudini Lakhia

Trained with her in short phases.  I danced in her choreography Timecycle (NS&Co). She is another dance-maker who pushes that dancer forward towards individuality and choreographs traditional material in a refreshing way. 

Geetanjali Lal

Trained and was mentored by her in some of my creative endeavours. Geetanjali is a master of the Jaipur gharana which embraces a very different dynamic range from the Lucknow gharana. To develop my versatility as a dancer I decided I needed a heavy dose of this!

Filip Van Huffel

I was part of Filip’s research and development for Akademi’s Coming of Age. The techniques of choreography within the Western contemporary dance genre offered an interesting palette of tools to apply to my own work. 

Lea Anderson

Introduced me to the techniques of creating for site-specific work. She’s probably the most adventurous choreographer I’ve ever worked with: humorous and quirky.  Lea’s way of conjuring stimuli for a piece was most bizarre and fun. 

Nikky Smedley

Was my artistic consultant during the creation of Spill for The Place Prize. Nikky offered great artistic support which one needs when creating a solo work. She made think about the audience much more – what should they see, feel, sense, etc.

Richard Alston

Mentor on my research for a new production, which is currently in development. His understanding of music and space is exquisite and he offered me lots of ‘top tips’ around group choreography and interaction.

Hélène Blackburn

Research using non-Western contemporary dance style within Western contemporary choreographic technique. We experimented with a range of text and music, which gave ever more creative ideas to try out in the future.

Lisa Torun

Choreographer of Trail, one of the solos in Parallels. What she noticed about my style was that it was similar to her own so there was an interesting exploration and actually a revelation. She enabled me to find kathak in every dance style and to develop the unique features. Trail has been the only piece so far in which I use spoken word.

Peter Badejo

Peter has left a lasting impression ever since my earlier years. Not only did I learn several African styles of dance and learnt to use my spine (!) but he drilled into me the spirit of the dancer in the dance (many choreographers talk only about the spirit of the dance). His spiritual and philosophical approach to movement, music and the relationship between the two is truly inspiring and I can never thank him enough for it. 



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