South Asian dance in the UK is a mixture of styles and approaches. And you can’t get much more mixed than Michael Barry’s production of Dido and Aeneas by Birmingham-based south Asian arts organisation Sampad. To Purcell’s 17th-century score it uses a collage of dance forms including bharata natyam, kathak and folk, and both music (directed by Paul Herbert) and dance (by Piali Ray) are performed by a mix of students and professionals.
The setting, an open-air amphitheatre, suits the mythological tale well. The dance forms, too, are surprisingly apt, their highly stylised gestures and facial expressions recalling the mime and mannerisms of an English masque.
Sonia Sabri, the strongest performer, plays Dido as a warrior queen, headstrong and powerfully rooted. Seeta Patel makes elegant use of her long, eloquent arms as Belinda, Dido’s devoted friend and attendant. Theirs, in fact, is the most intimate relation in the piece; Aeneas (Shane Shambhu) seems more like a generic hero than a character in his own right. It is Belinda who encourages Dido to love him, who entertains them with stories, and who finally comforts and supports Dido after Aeneas’s betrayal. That betrayal is wrought by the Sorcerer (Kali Dass), a pantomime baddie who eggs his minions to wrongdoing with dastardly grins and flourishes of his cape.
The singers are not mere accompaniment: the soloists often enter the arena to shadow their dancing counterparts. At Dido’s funeral, singer Wendy Nieper wanders through the mass of mourners like Dido’s released spirit, seeking but not seeing the figure of Aeneas standing raised to one side like a vision.
Dido and Aeneas is a mixed production that provokes a mixed response. Inclusive and eclectic as a project, it is less successful as a piece. Ray’s choreography stays close to the narrative, mining the storytelling aspect of south Asian dance. But it doesn’t quite find its own purpose; it is more an illustration of the story than the medium of its telling.