Now in his 50s, Astad Deboo is one of India’s modern dance pioneers, an achievement that was formally recognised in 1995 with a Sangeet National Academy Award for creative dance. After early training in both kathak and kathakali, he studied Graham technique in London and Limón technique in New York. Widely travelled and eclectic in his influences and interests, Deboo has danced on the Great Wall of China, performed at an early Pink Floyd concert in Chelsea Town Hall, was commissioned by Pierre Cardin to choreograph for prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, and has worked regularly for many years with Action Players, a company of deaf performers in Kolkata.
We were able to see just two works of this varied repertoire in a highly contrasting double bill at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, part of The Great Arc Festival presented by Teamwork Productions. The first, Every Fragment of Dust is Awakened, was a limpid solo inspired by a poem by Rabindranath Tagore which describes a moment of mystic communion with a divine presence and with nature. Deboo, white-robed, appears in a pool of light, unfolding his fingers, rolling his wrists, unfurling his arms. Slowly his arms spiral, then his body too, as he rotates gently, arms torquing his body into deep backbends and sinuous twists, his fingers stretching and folding like anemones (Deboo has beautiful hands). Still turning on the spot, he changes to a more staccato rhythm, his gestures suggesting motes hanging in the air. As Yoichiro Yoshikawa’s piano music – pitched somewhere between Debussy and Michael Nyman – increases in density, so too do Deboo’s turns. After a slower interlude, he ends the piece with an extended series of dervish whirls, subtly changing in speed, the light turning his robe luminescent as he spins. Though let down by some tinny acoustics, Every Fragment accumulates intensity through repetition, and lucidly evokes ecstasy through trance and transformation.
If Every Fragment was mystical, Celebration was mystifying. Whereas the first work had a simple central idea, effectively followed through, this was a disparate and dissipated series of episodes. Deboo is joined by four young practitioners of the Manipuri martial art thang-ta, skilled in their own form but not yet in theatre performance. The opening tableau shows the martial artists arrayed around Deboo contorted in a shoulder stand, like a scene of prayerful homage – or sacrifice. The following episodes alternate and contrast Deboo’s slow solos with fiery displays of thang-ta technique, clashing swords sending out sparks. Later the martial dancers and Deboo converge in slow mirrorings; but the encounter is hesitant and undramatic. Deboo (like many performers trained in South Asian dance styles, in my experience) seems more focused on individual movement than on partner or groupwork, relying heavily on devices of replication, symmetry and canon – and leaving me yearning for more compositional variety. There was plenty of variety in the music though, a magpie soundtrack that ranges from traditional dhrupad through Japanese Kodo drumming to Jan Garbarek synthesisers. But it is a confusing patchwork, that at one brassily upbeat moment lends an unfortunate touch of baton-twirling pzazz to the thang-ta swordplay. Celebration is, then, a bold but ultimately unsatisfying experiment in the contrasts between styles and ages.