The 12th edition of the annual Darbar festival of Indian classical music was also the first to include dance. It was a canny and probably crucial move for the festival director, Sandeep Virdee, to invite Akram Khan to curate the dance programme – not only because Khan’s name is widely recognised both outside and within the dance world but also because his career has been so directly informed by his training in the classical Indian dance style kathak.
Khan presented a short piece called X – not so much an excerpt as a foretaste of Xenos, a full-length solo based on the Prometheus myth, which will be premiered in 2018. He began the performance – and symbolically, the festival – by striking a match, a cue for Aideen Malone’s marvellous ceiling of hanging bulbs to light up, where it remained like a heavenly firmament throughout all the performances. For Khan, it both evoked his theme of fire and served as a godly plane above his own earthbound presence. Always a magnetic dancer, Khan deftly deployed kathak’s turbulent spins and sudden about-faces to suggest the battling, embattled figure of Prometheus.
That was a tantalising glimpse of the theme Khan is working on, but it was his subsequent lighthearted jam session with musician BC Manjunath that provided the bridge to the festival proper. Kathak has a feature – rather like a cutting contest in jazz – in which the dancer throws down a rhythmic gauntlet, which the percussionist picks up and flings back. It’s a demonstration of the closest bond between music and dance in the Indian tradition: rhythm. An electrifying musical concert by three percussionists, immediately after Khan’s performance, showed just how sophisticated that tradition can be, and also brought to mind the physical correspondences between the exertions of a drummer’s hands (fingertips, pads and knuckles, the flat and heel of the palm) and a dancer’s feet (heel, toes, ball, sole).
The percussionists also set out a fundamental pattern of Indian classical music that recurred again and again in the dance recitals: the time cycle, whereby the rhythm strays from the path of the pulse, and just when you think it will break away completely – boom! Everything snaps back to where it started. These eternal returns are like little adventures in time, and one of the pleasures of watching Indian classical dance is to spot them happening and see how they play out.
Each of the soloists I saw used them within different contexts and to different ends. The riveting bharatanatyam dancer Mythili Prakash turned the idea of the time cycle into a kind of cosmology. Her careful compositions traced a journey through life – as explorer, as devotee, as mother – until her final scene pictured existence itself as a many-fingered flame that both ignites and consumes the mortal self.
Prakash managed to convey this cycle largely through the geometries of her style, which she imbued with such clarity and purpose that a simple arc of the arm might seem to indicate the entire globe. Hugely skilled and technically exact, Prakash made the stage into a realm of forms, feelings and ideas.
Kathak dancers Dheerendra Tiwari and Aditi Mangaldas presented solos that evoked a divine presence. Tiwari’s invocation of the god Shiva was hampered by circumstance (he was a little ill, and there was a sound malfunction during his performance). Though he is a dancer of much promise with a gift for spins and speed, his choreography here made him appear to try too hard. He could learn from Prakash, who seemed to know instinctively that, especially for a soloist, who you are is more significant than what you do.
Mangaldas, a far more experienced performer, owned the stage without trying to earn it. In her tribute to Krishna you could see clearly how the footwork, pinned to the musical rhythm, provided a base for the spiralling, asymmetrical torsions of the upper body. Like Prakash, Mangaldas harnessed the formal dynamic to intimate something larger: a diagonal series of turns embodied drive and direction, sudden freezes became moments of attainment or reflection, and in one magical scene, the rustle of ankle bells in the dark suggested a hushed pulse of life within the void.
Indian classical dance often conflates the erotic and the spiritual and, being a largely solo form, requires performers to embody both masculine and feminine roles. Mavin Khoo, an almost exact contemporary of Khan’s, seized on what might be called the queerness inherent in the tradition for his potent portrayal of a woman waiting for her lover, transported by the ecstasies of their union and undone by his disappearance. Khoo wedded cut-glass technique to highly stylised mime to enact a drama of arousal, consummation and dissolution – another kind of time cycle, indeed, which again evoked larger forces: Khoo’s final incarnation was as a kind of galloping goddess of destruction, who seemed to have been there all along. It was one of several electric moments in the festival that opened a window not only on to an art form but on to a worldview.