Since launching her company ATMA Dance in 2010, contemporary bharatanatyam choreographer Mayuri Boonham has made a series of well-crafted, intellectually curious works that deal with subject matter as diverse as T.S. Eliot’s poetry and the universe before the Big Bang. The Magic Fish is Boonham’s first work for children, and the centrepiece of this year’s Something Happening For Kids children’s festival at The Place.
Not to be confused with the European folk story of the same name, The Magic Fish uses dance, music and spoken word to tell the story of Vishnu in his incarnation as Matsya. The performance is billed as suitable for children aged 5 to 9, but many of the much younger children in the audience (including my own 9-month-old baby daughter) were quite enraptured by Boonham’s enchanting portrayal of Vishnu, whom we first encounter sleeping on the stage, bathed in aquatic green light with a hypnotic twinkling soundtrack lapping over us.
The piece begins with Boonham introducing herself as the somnolent god, with a monologue delivered over the top of a fluid, gestural solo. Vishnu then calls to the stage regular ATMA collaborator Pauline Reibell as the titular fish; this use of two performers in essentially one role (Vishnu and Vishnu-as-Matsya) did confuse my non-dance-frequenting husband but didn’t appear to bother the younger viewers one jot. Reibell, in a non-speaking role, is a wonderfully labile fish with her expressive spine and supple hands.
The hypnotic, otherworldly mood changes into something more earthly with the arrival of King Manu (Pirashanna Thevarajah) making his way in through the audience. Thevarajah, who has a ready rapport with the young audience members, brings a jocular, blokey appeal to his regal role and encourages plenty of interaction. He greets his loyal subjects in the auditorium with waves and high-fives; takes a refreshing mimed bath in the river with lots of characterful scrubbing and gargling; and (later in the show) holds the young viewers rapt with his rhythmic mridangam playing.
Lovers of Indian myth will already know how the story continues: Manu finds a magical speaking fish in his bathing water one morning, and promises to save the fish from predators in the river by taking him home to his palace. Overnight, thanks to the magic of theatre and large swathes of fabric, the fish grows immense (accompanied, in this version, by high-pitched shouts of “fish behind you!”) and reveals itself to be Vishnu, transformed into fish form to fight the demon No-Knowledge.
Manu, of course, has to build a ship to keep the subjects of his kingdom safe, and here the ship is interactively formed from young audience members invited to the stage to create the bow, stern and mast with their own bodies. The number of eager volunteers arriving on stage to help with this part of the story illustrates the engaging nature of the show and it was great to see that even the younger children in the audience were not too shy to participate. Fortunately, Manu’s plan works, the ship reaches the Himalayas, and everyone’s suggested treasures are distributed among the people to start a new society. Cue a feelgood ending and happy smiles all around.
If there’s a small criticism to be made about The Magic Fish, it’s that the advertised running time of forty minutes feels far more suited to the target age range than the nearly hour-long performance that actually took place. If Boonham can find a way to move the show along at a more child-friendly lick without losing the playfulness and interactivity – and if someone in the crew can find a slightly nicer piece of set to represent the Kritamala river than the length of plastic sheeting that looked like it might have come in a hurry from Homebase – she’ll have a winner on her hands.