Perhaps it’s apt that an evening based on improvisation was put together at the last minute. The Pursuit of Now, part of the Buta festival of Azerbaijani arts, threw together virtuoso Azeri jazz pianist Shahin Novrasli with dancer Akram Khan, who in turn invited guest dancers: Berlin hip-hopper Honji Wang on the first night, Greek-Slovak duo Linda Kapetanea and Jozef Frucek on the second. You can see the reasoning: musical interplay is central to Khan’s kathak dance training, and some of his best work has been with contrasting dance partners. But whether these ingredients would cook or crumble was anyone’s guess.
As it turned out, the dance – one duet and two short solos – was the icing, the music was definitely the cake, and those who expected otherwise were disappointed. For me, it was a treat. Novrasli opened with a Chopin prelude, played straight before ceding to a jazzier, crunchier version of itself, backed in relaxed style by Nathan Peck’s double bass and Ari Hoenig’s percussion. Up front, Khan and Wang played nervy games of follow-my-hand and I-have-the-power, broken up by relaxed bops and swings.
In her veritable toccata of a solo, Wang played her body like a keyboard, each bone and joint as singular as the notes of a piano.
That poised, in-the-moment capacity to shift gear was the evening’s hallmark. Under changing washes of light and supplemented by Novrasli’s brothers on traditional Azeri string instruments, the music trio ranged from harsh folk to lush jazz, meandering melodies with aching harmonies to freewheeling runs over constrained basslines, to textures like birdsong and rhythms like traffic. In her veritable toccata of a solo, Wang played her body like a keyboard, each bone and joint as singular as the notes of a piano.
Khan’s dancing was more double-bass, thick threads of energy resounding through his windblown loops and falls. Novrasli, too, was a pleasure to watch, the music lifting him from his seat, torso tilting and feet paddling. It was an unexpected and unexpectedly refreshing evening, and the second night will no doubt be different again.