Catherine Hale’s profile of Mavin Khoo (pulse – Autumn 2003) showed him to be a dancer of many facets, having trained in bharatanatyam, odissi, ballet and Cunningham technique, as well as performing in clubs and cabaret. It’s not a traditional route, but throughout it has been classicism that has fired his passions, with all its connotations of codified mastery and performative virtuosity combined with technical control and physical restraint. The anthology of pieces shown under the title Parallel Passions reflects Khoo’s own dance history, referencing bharatanatyam and ballet most prominently in what Khoo calls the ‘bilingual body’, with a diversion into clubland.
The prologue wittily juxtaposes the rhythms of Khoo’s flat-footed bharatanatyam with the pointy tattoo of ballerina Alex Newton’s toe-shoes. The opening piece, Gemini, continues the idea of a non-identical stylistic twinship, with a family resemblance based on geometrical line, formal precision and technical prowess. Classical Indian dancer Seeta Patel is set against ballet dancers Newton, Anthony Kurt and Benny Maslov with Khoo standing motionless in the middle ground. As the stage clears, Khoo elaborates sequences of steps, first in one style, then the other; then he splices the two together into a disjunctive modern hybrid of neck and shoulder isolations combined with beaten steps, high leg extensions, hooked wrists and angular torso contortions. Obsessing in Line maps similar territory at greater length, its opening adagio pas de deux floating between two iconic anchors – the god Shiva for bharatanatyam, the swan for ballet. As its title suggests, the work also plays with the ideas of line and correctness that are so fundamental to the two forms. But like Gemini, it seems like so much stylistic groundwork, wanting for compositional development and choreographic purpose.
it seems like so much stylistic groundwork, wanting for compositional development and choreographic purpose.
Much more effective is the traditional Ashtapadi, a role normally explored by Khoo, but performed by Patel in the London performances. It depicts a woman’s (auto)erotic amorous yearning as she sighingly smooths her hair and caresses her arms – a familiar scene from the classical canon that is, briefly and delightfully, punctured by an electronic beat as Patel almost suggests a fleeting drag on a cigarette. Less effective is Lovely Way to Burn, Khoo’s sortie into club culture, set to Madonna’s dancefloor makeover of Peggy Lee’s classic Fever. Like Madonna, a polished publicist but a mediocre musician, this is all simulation and no soul, and the costumes – sexy black tunics and fabulous gold flares split to the knee – serve to mask the lacklustre choreography and curiously cold performances.
Khoo shows himself to be doubly ‘bilingual’, at home not only in the two idioms of ballet and bharatanatyam, but also in masculine and feminine styles and roles, and he clearly enjoys the expanded horizons this brings him. Yet the opening half of the show feels strangely inconsequential, with statements of stylistic ambidexterity and displays of Khoo’s multiple facets that don’t add up to pieces of choreography. It’s only in the second half, in the reworked Images in Varnam from 2001, that you get more of a sense of direction, and a justification of Khoo’s experiments. Tauter and much better than the original, there is a real drive to the well-paced choreography, with deftly fleeting trios in addition to the more familiar pas de deux which cross-cut the stage with razor-sharp lines of motion, giving dramatic effect to the deployment of stylistic difference.
Classicism demands a certain appreciation of the rules on which it is based. That is why it can be likened to a language: it has a recognisable lexicon of moves and a sense of syntax and correctness, albeit malleable. This makes the classical idiom an ‘insiderish’ art: like language, it depends on the common, or at least overlapping, understanding of its audience. Khoo’s experiments in bilingualism are provocatively intriguing and have stimulated considerable interest – witness the 22 venues booked for this tour – but its success depends also on building, or tapping into, a shared audience understanding. At the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre, that audience was certainly mixed, ballet-goers mingling with bharatanatyam buffs. Khoo’s show brought them together, but did the twain meet? Possibly… but I think it is choreography, not dancing, that will do the trick, and if Khoo is to consolidate his position and make further inroads into those audiences – and the dance audience is a fragmented one – he will need to provide a more compelling choreographic reason than Parallel Passions.
Khoo, though, disavows the role of choreographer: “I am a dancer first, a choreographer second.” Fair enough, and admirably realistic. But dancing is not sufficient reason to go to the theatre, and Parallel Passions too often relies on dancing alone, albeit fascinatingly bilingual. Khoo’s programme hints that he would like to work as a repertory company with guest choreographers and his reworking of Images in Varnam suggests that he has been honing his own choreographic eye. For me at least, choreography is the key for Khoo: he should either develop his own compositional voice, or invite guest choreographers who are interested in his bilingual stamping ground. Or better still – na? – do both.