Asian Music and Dance

The Cultural Olympiad Through the Eyes of the Critics

Abide With Me, Akram Khan Company, London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony

Through the eyes of Sanjeevini Dutta

The London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony will go down in the annals of history as the defining moment when the nation found out what it stood for. No longer the wringing of hands over ‘what is Britishness’. Danny Boyle stated in his vision that as a nation we are funny, irreverent, creative and welcoming of diversity. Both the medal haul and the artistic outpouring over the Olympics was strengthened hugely by the contribution of Britain’s diverse communities.

The choice of Akram Khan to choreograph a key moment in the Olympic ceremony (following the remembrance of the victims of 7/7, and just before the march of the athletes), was undoubtedly for the right reason: the best man to do the job. Khan’s three-minute creation with a cast of fifty dancers filled the three football-pitch-sized stadium with a thunderbolt of restrained power and fortitude. In a haze of smoke, a ball of blazing energy expanded as limbs thrust outwards in an expression of reaching out against all odds.

Against the regular beat of the ever-popular Christian hymn Abide With Me, sung by British singer-songwriter Emeli Sandé, the dancers used spaces within the beats to hurl out complex and beguiling rhythmic patterns. As their bodies lunged, rolled and thrashed, the reassuring melody of the hymn was oil on troubled waters. The small figure of Khan could be discerned in the distance, from the extraordinary magnetism of his movements.

The amoeba at the centre broke into various patterns: four pieces sometimes lining up on the two sides, once in a big circle. Things happened: struggle, despair, reaching out to make connections, pleading for forgiveness and beseeching the Almighty. An exciting moment came as the scythe passed over the wheatfield of bodies that were mowed down and rose up again like a Mexican wave; breathtaking in delivery, sharp and perfectly timed.

At the heart of the piece: a small boy and Khan as his mentor, playing, teasing, coaxing and finally passing on the baton to him. As the child is held aloft in the final image, Khan issues a message of hope and renewal.

The confidence and clarity with which Abide With Me was conceived is a measure of Khan’s stature as a choreographer. There is no point in discussing how Akram Khan may have developed his choreographic motifs. Three minutes was what he was given and he used it to make dance that will remain imprinted on the memories of the millions that watched the event live or on television. The dance was big, bold and charged but also delicate, tender and meaningful 

TooMortal, Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, St Mary’s Old Church, Stoke Newington

Through the eyes of Donald Hutera 

There were, of course, dance-related projects popping up in the months before the official launch of the Games. Consider TooMortal, an arresting female sextet which is quite possibly one of the most unusual pieces of choreography that Shobana Jeyasingh has made yet. Designed to be performed in churches, it might also prove to be one of the most resonant dances she has produced in the quarter-century since forming her own company.

Presented in the UK as part of London 2012, TooMortal was jointly commissioned by Dance Umbrella, La Biennale di Venezia (where it premiered) and Dansens Hus, Stockholm (where it was later to be presented); all are members of ENPARTS, the European Network of Performing Arts. Lasting only twenty minutes, the dance was performed several times daily at both of its London locations: St Mary’s Old Church in Stoke Newington, where I saw it, and St Pancras Parish Church on Euston Road, with further performances scheduled for St Swithun’s Church, Worcester. As a bonus, all showings were free but admittance potentially hard to come by due to limited audience capacity.

Nestled amidst an overgrown graveyard, St Mary’s Old Church is a small gem of a structure. Inside there was more than a hint of incense. Positioned with our backs to the altar, the public faced the main body of the space. Rays of light issued both through a back window and, thanks to Yaron Abulafia’s starkly simple lighting, down the main aisle. Even on a sunny late afternoon the air of hallowed decay was palpable. Set to a sound score (by Cassiel) of chimes, voice and perfectly-pitched electronic reverberations, the performance combined admirable rigour with a satisfying particularity. The cast remained inside the church’s high, old-fashioned and box-like pews, three on each side of the nave. The chasm-like central aisle yawned before us from our place in the chancel.

Young, sober-faced yet also varyingly expressive, the women popped up suddenly almost as if gulping first breaths or being spat out of the earth. Whether or not you chose to regard what they enacted as a journey from cradle to grave, this brief abstract drama was packed with metaphorical resonance. The dancers’ physical confinement must’ve set special challenges for Jeyasingh, who propelled them through sharp canonic patterns and jolting motions. Limbs slid along the rims of the pews, swift or slow, while occasionally whole bodies lunged over the top. There was something both creepily sensual and seductive about these young women as they peered and then dove or sank down. Contact between them rarely occurred, yet they shared more than just the same costuming (bare-armed red tops and purple half-tights, colours associated with priestly vestments and sacramental wine). This work, with its vital yet death-conscious spirit, impressed the eye and lingered in the mind.

Wah! Wah! Girls, Sadler’s Wells, London

Through the eyes of Donald Hutera

Wah! Wah! Girls operated in a much more commercial vein. The director, Emma Rice, joint head of the much-loved Cornish company Kneehigh, brought an assured populist touch to this self-designated ‘Britain meets Bollywood’ musical with book and lyrics by Tanika Gupta. In truth, it seemed more like a play liberally sprinkled with serviceable song and dance numbers than an out-and-out musical. However you peg it, this co-production between Sadler’s Wells, Theatre Royal Stratford East (where the show runs until 29 September) and Kneehigh was a splashy, flashy and colourful crowd-pleaser that threw a light on contemporary British cultural identity without entirely ignoring darker, meatier thematic material.

Presented as part of the current World Stages season, the show grabbed our attention from the get-go via broad comedy. The framework of Gupta’s script rested upon the ample shoulders of a London housewife named Bindi, embodied with uproariously sassy, brassy spirit by Rina Fatania. Bindi is an avid consumer of Bollywood films who also keeps a close watch on what’s happening in her East End neighbourhood. In the show her two worlds – cinematic and local – met and bled together.

The title (pronounced ‘Vah! Vah!’) refers to the appreciative shouts performers receive from audiences on the Indian subcontinent in lieu of applause. Gupta’s plot revolved around a dance club, commonly known in Britain’s metropolises as a Mujra club (a name derived from the courtesans who danced for men’s pleasure in sixteenth-century Mughal India). The one near Bindi’s home is run by Soraya, an articulately temperamental woman with a secret and damaged past back in her homeland. Played handsomely by Sophiya Haque, Soraya represents tradition. Modernity enters in the form of Sita (Natasha Jayetileke on press night), a young aspiring dancer on the lam from a dangerously hide-bound family in Leeds.

The show appropriated the staple ingredients of Bollywood cinema – what Bindi characterises as “long-lost fathers, murder, villains and all…and romance!” The club setting was a cue for bouncy, hip-shaking dances (choreographed by Javed Sanadi and Gauri Sharma Tripathi) that neatly blended Bollywood and classical kathak styles. Original songs by Gupta and the composer Niraj Chag, all adequately delivered (although too many vocals were drowned out by blaring background instrumentation), were supplemented by a few tracks from well-known films. Keith Khan’s clever designs, meanwhile, provided plenty of eye candy.

Shallow? Perhaps. Still, there was more going on here than just feel-good fun. The show set up a symbolic conflict between two women, and at least some recognition of female oppression and empowerment. With nods to sex-trafficking and honour killings, this friendly, brash and reasonably enjoyable entertainment turned into a timely kick in the teeth for tyrannical male cruelty.

Synchronised, Balbir Singh Dance Company, Forge End, Sheffield

Through the eyes of Sanjeevini Dutta

Balbir Singh Dance Company has been making waves in the North, forging a movement language based on contemporary, filtered through the choreographer’s training in kathak. Synchronised, a three-year exploration and exchange between dance and synchronised swimming, was one of the more unusual projects under the London 2012 banner. 

Developed with a group of contemporary and kathak dancers and two of the region’s synchronised swimming clubs, but also with volunteer dancers from the community, the slow build-up allowed an organic process to influence movement at a deeper level. The performance at Ponds Forge in Sheffield on 14 June 2012 was an hour and a half display which instilled the grace and subtlety of kathak dance into the regimented showmanship of synchronised swimming.

The performance strikes a fine balance between the displays of dance, both in the water and by the pool’s edge. The full length is well utilised when a line of dancers perform a sequence in black and red costumes, striking in their simplicity, so that the patterns of the body shapes are in the foreground. The swimmers create some of the well-known formations such as wheel and star shapes, double circles and spirals. With their kathak training there is an edge to their display: heads turn sharply, wrists flick, arms trace semi-circles in the air. An upside-down can-can dance is performed with the thrusts of legs scissor-like, perfectly timed to the music. The kathakness creates the calligraphic strokes to movement, lifting it from the pedestrian to filigreed elegance.

The performance is supported by the excellent scoring of Jesse Bannister whose own mellow tones of saxophone create an effective mood. Credit also goes to the supporting musicians, community choir and samba band. Without effective lighting, Synchronised could not have had the same impact.

The conclusion combines kathak and aqua dance seamlessly as the sawaal-javaab (question-answer) between the percussion and the dancer is played on the clappers and the thaap-thaap on the surface of the water. The swirls of water become the dancers’ skirts in the chakaars (pirouettes) as an extended tihai concludes a fascinating exposition of kathak and synchronised swimming.

Balbir Singh sets a new canon of aesthetics to the sport-art of synchronised swimming. Will he be invited to advise Team GB when bound for Rio?

Dance Holland Park: Emerging Choreographers’ Showcase, Holland Park, London

Through the eyes of Nicholas Minns

Dance Holland Park is a joint project between English National Ballet and Opera Holland Park as part of Big Dance 2012. The mandate for each of the choreographers is to create a dance work on an opera theme. The setting is the same for each: a broad expanse of stage with Holland House as a natural backdrop and its dramatic porch as the principal entrance and exit.

 I had never thought of crossing classical Indian dance with Fiordiligi’s aria, Per Pieta, from Mozart’s Così fan tutte, but Katie Ryan’s This Wicked Desire, a playful duet between Kali Chandrasegaram and Khavita Kaur, brought out the delicious spirit of the music as if they belonged together. The two dancers are a study in complementary opposites that is clear as soon as they make their entrance through the Holland House doorway; the voluptuous Kaur leading the way in her black-bodiced, high-waisted costume and the imposing Chandrasegaram a step behind in lyrical support. The programme notes say the dance is a playful struggle between the opposing forces of desire and virtue, but it is difficult to know if Kaur is overflowing with desire or virtue, and Chandrasegaram, a dancer of strength and delicacy in equal measure, has a mischievous joy in all he does that is as irresistible as the music. Their duet is thus rightly ambiguous: desire and virtue are not such opposing forces after all. What Ryan does so well, and the two dancers embody, is to show the constant interplay between the two in a way that Mozart clearly understood.



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