Asian Music and Dance

Subduction Zone

There are some stories that get swept under the rug. Perhaps there aren’t enough opportunities to express them or there is an assumption that no one is listening. In many cases it’s because the storytellers are too busy trying to survive and move forward.

This year, Rich Mix commissioned a range of new work to root out these very stories. The Radical Ideas call-out brought voices to the fore that expressed the history of protest, dissent and creativity in the East End. Its aim was to allow artists to imagine the London of the next decade and beyond.

But one can only truly move forward after looking back and learning from past experiences. One story that made the cut was Subduction Zone from British Sri Lankan veena player and producer, Mithila Sarma. The unique and complex identity of British Tamils is one of the stories that are often hidden within specific contexts, but now the next generation is unfolding the richness of their refined cultural traditions and combining them with their equally strong urban influences.

Geographically a boundary where two tectonic plates collide, Subduction Zone was cleverly redefined in a socio-political sense by Mithila and her cast of nine musicians and four dancers. The production highlighted how seemingly everyday occurrences actually speak volumes about the struggle to understand our own identity through a series of separate musical tableaux.

Instruments on platforms enclosed the stage and artists slowly filtered in, brushing past lost dancers depicting the plight of Tamil refugees fleeing from conflict. Yarlinie Thanabalasingham’s astoundingly smooth and soulful voice opened the scene and carried Tamil poetry, ad lib alaaps and RnB riffs with equal ease and emotive measure.

Some of the strongest pieces were built around the experiences of a brown girl caught in between two cultures. Repetitive sounds of morning prayers were remixed with underlying electronic rhythms of London’s heartbeat as Abirami Namasivayam’s bharatanatyam gestures were uncontrollably morphed into popping and locking formations. “In the house that I was born, I am ‘darkie’,” formed the opening line of #unfairandlovely where spoken word was combined with bharatanatyam, Carnatic vocals and Kapilan Balasubramaniam’s captivating street dance to powerful effect.

The theatrical element and emotional connection were strong in many pieces such as Taboo, which used the sensual poetry of Mahakavi Bharathiyar, contemporary composition of Girishh Gopalakrishnan and moving vocals of Kaviraj Singh to bring the magnetism and forbidden nature of romantic relationships to light within conservative South Asian societies. The audience chuckled, nodded, clapped and smiled along with many of the scenes that mirrored moments in their own lives.

From being asked “Where are you actually from?” to what it feels like to eat your Indian packed lunch in a room full of people, each scene explored a separate area of cultural collision and conflict. Although the breaks were perhaps useful in enabling the viewer to take each piece in separately without trying to connect everything into a single narrative, the occasionally awkward changeovers tended to disrupt the audience’s attention and absorption in the themes.

One thing was certain, however: the whole cast had a collective energy and seriousness in their approach that made the show professional but with enough playfulness thrown in to allow for authenticity too. There was no lack of talent on stage and the wide variety of elements that were combined to create Subduction Zone were incorporated with synchronicity. Whether it was the dancers’ swift movements and strong choreographic ideas or the energy of Western and Indian rhythms and riffs, the collaborators had a strong vision that held a tangible story together.

Even with limited resources, it is extremely important to have these kinds of opportunities and platforms for creativity to flourish; not only for more people to engage with diverse voices but for young talents to discover these moving stories within themselves too.



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