A triple bill of dance at the South Bank’s Alchemy festival may have been a intended as a showcase for young, up-and-coming artists, but in the event it was an absent 80-year-old who dominated the programme: Kumudini Lakhia. A major figure in kathak dance, Lakhia had been working in India on a duet for British dancer Aakash Odedra and Indian Sanjukta Sinha, accompanied by dhrupad singers the Gundecha Brothers. And though Tathaa (“and also”) is still a work in progress, its London performance showed a vitality and freshness that outshone the rest of the programme.
Tathaa is an essentially classical kathak piece that has been inflected – suffused, even – by a spirit of personal intimacy. To the opening alaap section of the music, the two dancers simply walk, turn and spiral, sometimes drawing near and sometimes drifting apart, like planets circling freely in each other’s orbit. The light footwork and understated gestures become more detailed as they grow closer, dancing both side by side and face to face, as if they were both companions and lovers. Odedra is the sharper and lighter dancer, though I’d love to see him let go more (freedom, not control, seems his greatest strength). The dhrupad music works wonders, more elemental than the standard Hindustani style, particularly in Umakant Gundecha’s remarkable bass voice, as deep and growling as a didgeridoo. But it’s the lucid, almost carefree choreography that makes the piece: you see through the steps and spins into the heart of their relationship. There’s an easy, intimate conviviality between the two dancers: once, when seated, Odedra casually circles his arm around Sinha’s waist – a quite literally touching moment. In Tathaa, desire does not, as so often in Indian classical dance, take the form of unfulfilled longing or ardent courtship. Here the attraction is mutual, and these characters already know each other, personally and physically. Theirs is a post-coital relationship – the honeymoon period, perhaps. That’s what makes you melt.
Though still a work in progress, Tathaa feels complete. In contrast, Kamala Devam and Seeta Patel’s Last One Standing has the feel of a workshop presentation: a fruitful central idea not yet fully realised in the material. The idea is jenga (the game in which players try to remove pieces from a tower of blocks without making it topple) and the two bharatanatyam dancers have plenty of fun with it: Devam chops and kicks around Patel like a kung fu fighter, trying to break her concentration; Patel positions her errant limbs into bharatanatyam positions as if they were precarious pieces of a puzzle. They play around with time and space, forwarding and reversing their sequences like the video running behind them (by Maria Akesson), which mirrors the stage action but jazzes it up with special effects. The video is great to watch, but is also the work’s main downfall: film is an attention-grabbing medium that often, as here, overpowers live action. More judicious use is needed.
Hetain Patel’s Kanku Raga, a dance for screen only, shares these ideas of forwarding and reversing, but is much more focused. The screen is split into four equal frames, each showing Patel’s torso: bare on the left; on the right, daubed with a red cross. Each frame changes according to a spoken taal, and as the dhas and dhins progress we see the bare torso become painted one one side while the cross is gradually erased on the other. You can read what you like into the symbolism (the St George’s Cross springs to mind), but what makes this film work is its formal inevitability. Like a minimalist composer, Patel sets up the elements and the process, and lets them play out to their end. That’s very satisfying.