It’s been two years since Nina Rajarani won the Place Prize for Quick!, a sharp little portrait of work-hard/play-hard businessmen rendered – improbably, but very effectively – in bharatanatyam. Her evening-length Quiet Please! (which incorporated Quick! into a larger story) was a disappointing follow-up in 2007, with both concept and choreography stretched too thin. Happily, this year’s programme, Play Ball, is a return to form, with Rajarani opting for three short pieces instead of one long one, each a take on “lad culture”. The first of these, Bend It, is a variation on the recipe that made Quick! such an unexpected hit: it yokes together the more show-off aspects of bharatanatyam – the fast footwork, the thrusting, razor-sharp gestures – with a brusque, competitive and matter-of-fact masculinity. In short, it makes bharatanatyam blokeish.
Here the subject is football. Four musicians and four dancers are divided into red and blue teams. There are film projections of the guys doing field practice, but the game’s on stage. A penalty, a fake injury, a goal, a dribble, a long shot – it’s all there, and bharatanatyam is a great way to depict it. There’s the fancy footwork, of course, but perhaps more important are the characteristic clear directions not just of limbs but of eyes. You really feel these guys have their eyes on the ball.
Rajarani is rigorous with her technique without being too precious about the style – she chucks in some nifty header jumps, some celebratory bhangra. And in the middle, in comes Bhakti Raval like a peacock-costumed cheerleader. Pert and peppy, she leads the audience in a cheesy half-time singalong. None of this would work without Y. Yadavan’s vocal accompaniment, a classical tillana rewritten in modern Sinhalese and sprinkled with various English words: free kick, offside, foul. With its motoric rhythms and catchy crescendos, this tillana sounds just like an overexcited football commentary.
From the fun to the frisky: Chemistry is essentially a mating dance. Within a circle of lights, Sooraj Subramaniam circles Raval and proffers himself at her feet; but she – as is traditional in in these love scenes – needs to be courted and convinced. He nuzzles her neck, their moves begin to harmonise, and she opens her hands in front of her navel, like the flowering of desire. Chemistry has some good choreographic figures – but it lacks chemistry. It treads an uncertain line between romance and sex – and it’s not helped by the music, which by the time it gets to the slow-bop discobeat makes the action feel like the obligatory sex scene of a naff daytime soap opera. And it’s hardly “lad’s culture”. I’m not complaining, but has Rajarani seen any photos in Nuts or Loaded featuring a chiselled topless man in clingy pants while the woman is demurely covered in loose-fit fabrics from neck to ankle?
Another outing of Quick! ends the programme. A deserved hit with audiences, this breathless, speed-driven piece is performed with more focus than I remember previously. That’s partly down to the more emphatically delineated arguments over the boardroom table – gestures held up like proposals, or flung down like final statements – and it’s partly down to new company dancers Sooraj Subramanian and Arun Shankar, strong performers who make up for the departure of Ash Mukherjee. It’s an upbeat way to end the evening.