A near kiss: the eyes look, but the lips don’t touch. It is this exact moment of aching suspense, a staple scene of many Bollywood films, that drives the drama of Escapade, an open-air spectacle seen on two August nights at London’s South Bank Centre. It was a giant undertaking, with more than 100 performers drawn from professional, education and community groups. Marshalling this crowd were 11 choreographers, including Dan O’Neill (formerly of The Featherstonehaughs), Gauri Sharma Tripathi, Sujata Banerjee, Mavin Khoo and Henri Oguike – while former V-TOL choreographer Mark Murphy provided the film projection. Produced by Akademi, a South Asian dance organisation, and conceived by Akademi’s director Mira Kaushik, it was directed by Keith Khan, whose experience with large-scale events such as the Commonwealth Parade – and indeed Akademi’s earlier Coming of Age (2000), for which Escapade is something of a sequel – was both drawn on and tested in this mad, mammoth extravaganza. Full credit, then, to the whole team for making this a landmark event, which will surely become one the South Bank Centre’s highlights of the year. Brash, upfront and populist, Escapade captured the spark of a certain London-based, Asian-influenced cultural vibrancy – and the Royal Festival Hall, with its Festival of Britain history, provided the ideal stage.
Instead of an archetypal pair of romantic leads, Escapade opens with twelve couples, of all genders, arrayed on the steps and platforms outside the RFH, each acting out their own scenario of desire, rebuttal, conflict or conciliation. But as in the best musical films, the narrative is simply the pretext for the numbers, and drama blossoms into spectacle. Groups of performers in eye-scorching neon costumes, wigged, jewelled, booted and slippered, take over the concrete walkways while loudspeakers blare Sandeep Chowta’s heady mix of Hindi film songs, R’n’B, rock and club beats over the throng of milling spectators. Line-dancing Bollywood babes flash seductive glances from their balcony, jutting hips hitting the beat, while a posse of punk women, leotards overlaid with mesh and chains, get down to a harder urban vibe in the underpass below. Leggy ballet types flail their extendable limbs, schoolkids act out filmstar fantasies, skateboarders surf the ramps, and into the fray chugs an open-topped red tourist bus, laden with eager ‘Indian sightseers’ (the merry Lilian Baylis Over-60s Group).
Anand Kumar, podium performer extraordinaire, drags up for a truly rivetting mix of film dance, kathak and vogueing
The action culminates at the back of the building, the wall becoming a giant screen showing two lovers in the prelude to a kiss… It’s wittily censored by a jump-cut to a Asian family whose gently comic struggles for control of the video remote send the projection into delirious rewinds, playbacks and channel-hops. Meanwhile, the action has spilled onto balconies and terraces: traditional Indian chau dancers are kitted in B-boy bandanas and low-slung shorts, and the astonishing Anand Kumar, podium performer extraordinaire, drags up for a truly rivetting mix of film dance, kathak and vogueing. ‘Is this art? Is it culture?’ a querulous American tourist asked me. ‘Haven’t thought,’ I replied, ‘it’s too much fun.’ Visibly relieved, she skipped off into the crowd to savour Escapade’s fairground pleasures.
Sprawling, diverse and cheekily irreverent, Escapade is perhaps best described as carnival, a celebration of London’s vibrant diversity refracted through the prismatic lenses of Bollywood cinema and British popular culture. But wait – a more pressing question must be lingering on your lips: do the lovers finally get to kiss? After countless near misses, of course they do, and how: swooning, 360-degree split-screen kissing that ignites a massed current of exuberant bopping as fireworks explode triumphantly from the roof.