Daredevas was Akademi’s two-night showcase for new and up-and-coming dancers. The opening number featuring Seeta Patel in Liz Lea’s She Was Still, was the shortest and snappiest. In a little white dress, Patel unfurls her arms and executes a neat gestural dance, like a kind of hasta hand-jive. Her arms speed up and tilt her off-centre until she sweeps out in spiral skips before returning to her spot, where she lifts chest and head as if suffused with inspiration. Those are the facts, and here’s what it brings to mind: a doe-eyed TV chef efficiently slices, measures, pours and stirs. She waltzes about in happy anticipation as her dish simmers. Back at the table her Madhur Jaffrey efficiency melts further into Nigella Lawson indulgence. She lets the flavour flood her body, rapturously tilting her head as if to say: mmm, that tastes divine.
her Madhur Jaffrey efficiency melts further into Nigella Lawson indulgence
Intimations of the divine are part of south asian dance’s stock-in-trade, and this is a refreshing spin. Okay, doubtless none of the chef malarkey was intentional, but surely it’s a sign of richness when a dance suggests more than it states. The performance supplies the ingredients but it’s your imagination that does the cooking. Magdalene Gorringe’s Litany is, in this sense, the opposite: mostly it seems to mean more to the performer than to the audience. It opens with quotes from Yeats’s Second Coming (‘things fall apart’) as Gorringe stamps a spare cross-shaped path on the stage, to end circling in the centre. ‘The centre,’ as the poem says, ‘cannot hold’ – and Gorringe grows ever more stark and tense. Gorringe performs the bare-bones bharatanatyam – spoke-like arms, low squats, unadorned rhythms – with funereal austerity. There are tantalising moments – she rears up like a questioning sphinx, or wrings her arms like a tortured Lady Macbeth – but only towards the end does the piece accumulate deeper resonance, for example, with the repeated contrast of open palm with closed fist.
Shane Shambhu’s Impermanence has a hefty programme note (Buddhism, mysticism, happiness, suffering) but is, thankfully, more straightforward, alternating scenes of agitation with interludes of calm. His angular arms pump and piston like machinery, or retract into punchy fists, levering his torso off-kilter in time with the thumping musical beat. Then he sits into centred, statuesque poses often accompanied by vocal chants, before the music (rock rhythms, bustling bazaar noises, unsettling Psycho-like strings) goads him back into action. It’s rather too long, with several false endings, but its hot colours and Shambhu’s internal focus impart a beguiling intensity.
Amina Khayyam’s eshtiAgh is the classical (kathak) piece of the evening – actually a welcome respite on this contemporary programme. It’s the classic evocation of an absent lover, and Khayyam fleshes her portrayal convincingly, a carefree young girl who washes and plays, and for whom love is a disquieting disturbance that opens vistas onto depths that she had not foreseen. The stop-start of the recorded music irritated some in the audience, but I found the fades and returns of the voice an effective evocation of the quell and surge of emotion.
Ending the first programme was Saju Hari’s Event. Stitching together sections from two earlier compositions, it’s not a piece in itself – but Hari is such a fluid mover that you’re quite content just to watch him prowl and flow across the stage. Initially he seems like a forest creature, stalking like a panther or rising up from the ground like a hothouse orchid. Later – to an odd voiceover that muses about the sexuality of aliens – he performs insect ambulations, or locks his body into knots, accompanied by suitably weird bug music. It’s an assured performance, sprinkled with moments of physical wit.
The second, mostly classical programme opened with Anwesha Ahmed’s recital of rarely seen Manipuri dance. She performs it well, if a little hesitantly, counterbalancing the curves of hips, shoulders and head. But it’s the kind of dance I find hard to engage with – too decorative and too decorous. Much more to my taste was Seeta Patel’s earthy portrayal of Ganesh (choreographed by Mavin Khoo). Patel skilfully depicts the rolling gait, the lazy flap of ears and trunk, and the unhurried benevolence of the elephant god, while keeping her footwork clean and her gestures sharp. Kakoli Mishra’s kathak evocation of open-hearted ecstasy in Sufi Calam is also a treat, her wide-armed dervish spins an invocation of bounteous nature, her shimmering hands evoking the blessing of rain.
If Mishra intimates a swelling heart, Kali Dass goes for tumescent loins
If Mishra intimates a swelling heart, Kali Dass goes for tumescent loins. Lasya – the word indicates the feminine mood – is like a peep-hole view of backstage goings-on at an odissi drag revue. Topless Dass mimes boudoir preparations, donning makeup and jewelry, eyebrows puckering as suggestively as lips. He then plays both Woman (the portrayal demands capital letters), tracing the curve of hip and breast with a come-hither finger, and Man, barrel-jumping in boisterous anticipation of a night of nookie. The centrefold sex scene sees Dass in arched, eye-rolling ecstasy, hips lightly humping the air as he alternately role-plays both sexes. Post-coitus, Woman is invigorated, but Man, having taken his pleasure, does a runner. Bastard. Woman returns to the dressing room, indignant arms raised as if to say why? why? In full drama-queen mode, Dass rends hair, flings aside earrings and bangles, smears the bindi on his forehead with heaving breast and smouldering eyes. The melodrama is as thick as the makeup. It’s all very ’50s.
Kripa Iyer’s Pallavi is a traditional recital of odissi – though, with its flirty counterpoise of hips, shoulders and head, you can certainly see Dass’s stylistic point of departure. Iyer’s clean lines and symmetrical phrases suggest, as classical dance tends to, a soloist in command of both stage and audience. That command was topped by Quincy Charles’s assured closing performance, a deft exposition of the spatial rigour and rhythmic vigour of classical kathak.
a very mixed bag of solo performances, some raw and some cooked, and some, er, half-baked
Daredevas was a very mixed bag of solo performances, some raw and some cooked, and some, er, half-baked. The fact that they were all solos is not solely a matter of financial constraints – which doubtless affected the technical production (too many face-shadowing spotlights) and necessitated the use of recorded music. It’s also indicative of a certain soloist’s mindset in south asian dance, in which an invisible Other – person, god, spirit – is indicated by mime or through the transformative effects of desire, devotion or revelation. I’d love to how these dancers and choreographers might deal with others as concrete presences on stage. Still, I’ve never seen the Other invoked by a kind of writhing sexual air-guitar, nor have I ever witnessed a transformation from Jaffrey to Nigella – and for those surprises I am truly grateful.