Two British choreographers will be presenting their work in the UAE in February – and interestingly, both were trained in a classical dance style from India: kathak. Both Akram Khan and Sonia Sabri were born and raised in Britain (Khan in London, Sabri in Birmingham), and studied kathak there, and both have gone on to use kathak in their performance work. Does that make their work Indian, or British, or what?
For Sheethal Rishi of the British Council in UAE (co-presenters of Sabri’s work, with Abu Dhabi Authority for Arts and Heritage), the question is a redundant. “the work is international in scope,” she says. “It has emerged from a diverse, multicultural society, with many international links. I think people in the UAE will understand that instinctively. Like Britain, we too are a highly diverse country.”
Still, both Khan and Sabri are less interested in the label than in the artform. Kathak dance originated in the Indian Mughal courts of 16th century. It was at first a storytelling style of performance, characterised by stylised gestures, expressions and mime. It also evolved a more formal, sometimes virtuosic aspect, with whirling spins and spiralling arm movements, intricate footwork – closely linked to the rhythmic complexities of Hindustani music – and dynamic contrasts between speed and stillness.
Both Khan and Sabri have developed this style in their own ways. Khan trained in contemporary dance as well as kathak, and brought an experimental approach to his choreography that quickly marked him out as a highly distinctive choreographer with an international appeal. He doesn’t see the work as “fusion” though – it’s not simply a blend of his kathak and contemporary dance. He prefers to avoid labels altogether in fact, though will admit to the idea of “confusion” – work that defies classification or cuts across categories.
Vertical Road, the piece his company will perform in the UAE (18 February, Abu Dhabi Theatre), is a case in point. Inspired by the idea of a “vertical path” between the earthly and spiritual realms, this luminously poetic work has a multinational cast of performers who have themselves trained in a variety of styles. Vertical Road is certainly not a kathak performance, yet the imprint of kathak is clear in the supple arms, the vortices of energy, the dynamic range.
Kathak’s dynamism – its circular forces and gyroscopic balances, its tension and release – are part of what most attracts Khan to the style. He also finds it highly adaptable – “like water that flows to fill any vesssel,” he says. Sabri thinks the same. “Kathak is a classical form,” she explains, “but it encourages the performer’s individual expression. It is very malleable.” Sabri’s performance Kathakbox (26 February, Abu Dhabi Theatre) exemplifies that flexibility, and is accompanied by a week-long residency of workshops in which she explores three different dimensions to the art form: what she calls classical, contemporary and urban kathak.
Classical kathak is, essentially, the traditional form, with its time-honoured tales and legends, its long-established style. Contemporary kathak, for Sabri, is the exploration of that style, experimentation with different types of music or choreographic or compositional ideas. Urban kathak, an innovative new direction that Sabri has begun to investigate, is about making connections with popular and youth culture. She elaborates: “Beatboxing is an urban vocal style that imitates sound systems. Kathak performances often include rhythmic vocal recitals – that connects with rap, too. ‘Spoken word’ and performance poetry are linked to the live storytelling tradition of kathak. And hip-hop and street style use expressive gestures, mannerisms and rhythms, just as kathak does.”
The Kathakbox project is so called both for its association with the word “beatbox”, and because Sabri is interested in taking kathak “out of the box”. Consequently, her workshops are not designe to teach kathak, but rather to explore connections between the principles of kathak – storytelling, gesture, rhythm and so on – and the individual interests that participants bring, whether that be poetry, rap, music, performance, or simply their own life experiences.
Echoing Khan, Sabri avoids the idea of “fusion”. “I prefer dialogue to fusion,” she says. “Kathakbox is about hosting a kind of conversation. It aims to be a meeting point between all kinds of people.” Put that way, you can see how kathak – a classical dance style from 16th-century India – can adapt to a diverse and international world audience in the 21st century.
But instead of thinking in such terms, it is more rewarding understand kathak – to feel it – by engaging with the artform itself, whether as an audience member or as workshop participant. One of Khan’s favourite quotes – from eminent kathak dancer Kumudini Lahkia – is a beautiful reminder of how labels such as “British”, “international” or even “kathak” can impede our engagement with the art: “I hold flags for no country,” she says. “I need both hands free to dance.”