Trying to find a way to resolve the potential conflict between past and present, tradition and contemporaneity remains a concern of so many South Asian dance artists that it’s practically become a cliché. And yet, as her two-part performance in the Edinburgh International Festival amply demonstrated, the kathak expert Aditi Mangaldas is an extremely astute negotiator of this familiar borderline aesthetic territory.
Mangaldas is too smart and keen of mind to fall into creative traps. As she said in a recent interview, “It’s interesting and challenging for me to explain the unknown.” The works her Delhi-based company brought to Scotland were edited down from their full-length versions. Yet even in the form of extended extracts, the probing intelligence behind both of them shone through brightly.
Uncharted Seas is a polished, highly kinetic ensemble piece anchored in ‘the search for the intangible’. This could have turned out to be vague had Mangaldas and her eight dancers not seemed to inhabit an abstract theme from the inside out. All the hallmarks of kathak were excitingly present: the slap of bare feet on a hard floor, the whirlwind pirouettes and the upper limbs flickering like a flame in front of each dancer’s sometimes tilted head.
With its textured gold backdrop and costumes (designed by Mangaldas) that looked rich in cut and hue, Uncharted Seas proved to be an uncommonly handsome dance. The lighting was both glowing and tenebrous, effects partly produced by the use of small, hand-held candles; such a simple device, those wax objects, but they helped to make it seem as if Mangaldas and her dancers were royal beings from some other realm diligently but elegantly pursuing an ancient quest.
The live music of tabla player Yogesh Gangani, the vocalist Samiullah Khan on harmonium and sarangi, and Ashish Gangari on pakhawaj added just the right aural layer to the cast’s tacit mission. The first musician was especially, visibly joyful in his playing; imbuing that kind of feeling to that level of playing could only enhance rather than distract from our appreciation of Mangaldas’ choreography.
The various elements in the equally ambitious Timeless added up to something only slightly less satisfying and cohesive, and yet in some ways it was the more conceptually ambitious piece. Here Mangaldas and company are questioning the nature of time – what it means, how it’s perceived and measured. This is no simple task. Clad in more streamlined and contemporary costumes of glossy silver and grey, and placed against a backdrop of large yellow dots on a black wall, she and six dancers attempted to plumb time’s mysteries accompanied by a soundtrack that was both recorded and live.
Timeless was possessed by a sometimes fragmentary, stop-start nature. Two men appeared to hold a conversation via fast, percolating downstage footwork rather than speech. The other woman in the piece called out rapid-fire rhythms as Gangani sat near her with his trusty tabla – another dialogue. Four males sat on a diagonal, across centre stage, each with one arm raised like a row of human clocks. Mangaldas herself sat down and spoke, telling us a bit about her family background (business and academics) and how she was encouraged to read the classic Indian epics in which the various deities each had a particular relationship with time, or so it now seems to her. This pause in the dancing was quietly daring, and as if issuing from not just the head but the heart. Again, as in Uncharted Seas, there was a sense that Mangaldas and company were on the hunt for something elusive but worth investigating.
As a performer Mangaldas exudes a strong presence but laces this power with a delicacy and a sense of detail that makes her appealing to observe. Into the group activities of both works she folded, with an admirable lack of fuss, a pair of short but classy and contrasting dances for herself. The solo in Uncharted Seas was marked by speed and spins. Mangaldas, in a costume with a sash across the front, looked positively regal as she quivered and stamped downstage to the sound of her own ankle bells. Her footwork appeared to catch fire thanks to a subtle red light positioned there. The solo in Timeless was softer, slower and mainly floor-bound, her hands fluttering like moths near head and torso and fingertips touching one after another like the tiny hands of a timepiece.