Asian Music and Dance


Sunlight streams through the two-storey-high windows onto the Olympic-size swimming pool. Floating shapes like oversized water lilies sit atop the calm surface. A young woman walks along the pool, as if searching for something. The eye is drawn to movement in the water and a poolside stage hosting musicians. A swimming pool, dance and live music – not the most obvious combination. In drawing together seemingly disparate elements, Synchronised offered a fabulous spectacle, adding elite synchronised swimming to the movement mix with kathak and contemporary dance. 

Choreographer Balbir Singh collaborated with synchronised swimmer Heba Abdel-Gawad and composer Jesse Bannister to create a unique fantastical vision. Commissioned by imove in Yorkshire for the London 2012 Olympic Games Cultural Olympiad, the show premièred with a large cast of 100 while the current production touring to local swimming pools hosts a smaller cast. Inviting us on an aural and visual journey, Singh announces: “This is not a swimming pool for the next hour … it is all about you and your imagination.” 

Twelve episodes explore ideas around the theme of water such as iconic rivers and their associations: ‘On the Banks of the Ganges’, ‘Adrift on the Mississippi’ and ‘Into the Nile’. Quotations in the programme set out snippets of sacred and secular wisdom, citing religious texts, the swimmer Esther Williams and authors such as Mark Twain and J.R.R. Tolkien. Sections flowed into each other, a group of dancers would manifest mysteriously in the pool, with three synchronised swimmers punctuating the vision with feats of athleticism and musicality at one end of the space. The eye is then drawn to a group of eight dancers standing in waist-high water, their unison kathak arm gestures ending with a percussive splash. Later, community dancers take the action poolside, echoing the water-borne movements of the core dance group. 

Water creatures provided a natural inspiration, seen in the undulating images of a long limbless creature in ‘Enter the Serpent’, while the ‘Sea Creatures at Play’ was full of tumbles, turns and dives, evoking childhood pool games accompanied by vocal harmonies. Different aspects of Hindu mythology inspired ‘Krishna and the Serpent Kaliya’, drawing on abhinaya portrayals of the well-known narrative to create a fantastical battle. A swimmer suddenly lifts up out of the water; the resulting ripples stir up a vortex. Dolphin dives create moments of suspense as the swimmers emerge in unexpected locations. One evocation of Krishna is seen on land, as Sooraj Subramaniam’s kathak footwork and turns, fluid arms and precision offer the artistry and technique of the classical form. 

Rich religious references are matched by popular ones. ‘Serpents of Hollywood’ recalls the athleticism of synchronised swimming with Busby Berkeley-inspired abstractions of moving bodies. Legs thrust up from the surface to spin in gravity-defying feats, merging into kaleidoscopic designs that emphasise the geometry of the body. Conceptual ideas are manifest in multiple ways as the production plays with dimensions of space. In the synchronised swimming section ‘Reflected’, mirror imagery multiplied the dynamism of attack where the accents of action in assisted back flips and leg kicks paralleled those of the music. Tradition and innovation, fluidity of water and gesture created a treasure of literal and metaphorical imagery as dancers swim and swimmers dance.

Jazzy saxophone riffs are joined by flute, piano, guitar, cello and mridangam to transport us to new places. Haunting melodies are countered by an upbeat country hoedown; complex drumming is contrasted by a flowing piano solo. We are taken on musical as well as movement journeys, with the rhythmic interplay of dancer and musician in ‘Splash’ focusing the digi-dah and ta ki ta at the core of kathak. As the sun sets lower, golden hues are added to the changing lights of blue and red designed by Michael Mannion. ‘Returning Home’ brought the spectacle full circle. A flute linked the elements, ending with virtuosic trills and the evocation of Krishna’s instrument through gesture. Dancers moved like reeds as they followed each other out of the water. Synchronised achieves a unique cohesion, evoking memories of seaside trips, childhood games and the transformative power of water and the imagination.



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