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Akademi South Asian Dance UK - Daredevas

by Cerise Andrews

October 7 and 8, 2006 -- Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, London

Akademi’s Daredevas platform (7th – 8th October) showcased seven strong, stunning women as up-and-coming choreographers and/or performers: a fitting precursor to Dewali’s fireworks ad glowing lanterns. Collectively these luminous divas are gradually shifting and manipulating south Asian dance forms into new moulds. They represented a critical mass of traditionally-trained deviants who have led their formative techniques (willingly) astray. Daredevas’ choreographers showed a spectrum of how deviation can effectively lead to re-invention, with varying shades of integration between the traditional and the innovative and sometimes dazzling flashes of inspiration.

The most daring and effective contemporary interpretation of south Asian dance was “Raising the Wind,” choreographed by Paivi Mero and danced by Hanna Mannila. The programme note credits kathak and Finnish folk traditions as the movement vocabulary’s inspirations. There were also contemporary dance theatre idioms in the mix: Graham and Alston. The choreography was true to kathak’s use of geometry within the body’s own kinesphere with traditional expressive gestures extending out from a personal sphere on a trajectory fixed towards the front of the stage and out to the audience. Spatially, the work’s format was more European, using pathways that circled and spiraled the stage, body facings away from the audience, and pedestrian running. Mannila shifted easily between the two modes and the result was a compelling, freefalling vision in red.

Next on the spectrum of ‘non-South Asian to South Asian’ tones was Shamita Ray’s “Dark Matter”, a work dealing with ‘not knowing’ but with a clear aesthetic style that was developed to become a little more knowable through its continuous throwing off-centre, abrupt changes of direction and flicking of limbs. To mention Shobana Jeyasingh would perhaps be a simplistic comparison: a combination of bharatanatyam and contemporary dance-theatre has many guises, but to be compared with such a choreographer is surely a compliment to a relatively lesser-known artist.

“Brisk, Bright but Broken” was the only duet on the programme. Choreographer/dancers Marcella Cappelletti and Yamuna Devi revealed how the same material can be interpreted differently by differently trained performers. Devi’s style referenced bharatanatyam and martial arts, whilst Cappalletti’s movements were in addition ingrained with contact improvisation and release-based contemporary dance. The piece opens with the two dancers’ bodies fused into a headless, two-backed, four-armed creature lit by low sidelights to optimize the illusion. From the outset there is a sense of the surreal, macabre, and the intentionally bizarre delivered with wit. Fingertips painted red and held tightly clenched suggested beaks, and a sharp, pecking motif developed. The movement centered around counterpoint between the staccato, darting dynamics led by arms, feet and eyes, and the fluid, melting necks and torsos. There was a blurring of the human and the bird-like, and an ambiguous two-as-one/ play-fighting /real-fighting relationship was played on by the two performers. This ends in separation as Cappalletti side lunges off stage in submission and Devi remains upright and subtly triumphant.

Sarra Whicheloe interwove sustained yoga postures with bharatanatyam in “Bhole Nath” (choreographer not disclosed). Beautifully costumed in iridescent purple with a greenish sheen, Whicheloe drifted from slow to fast-moving phrases in a pleasing arrangement of steps, postures and gestures presented with strength and panache. Reportedly, Whicheloe fired up her performance on Sunday to a better audience reception, yet on Saturday, the work seemed to amount to little more than a presentation of yoga practice and technique class exercises.

The programme’s opening and closing works were examples of contemporary ‘traditional’ compositions. Both added something fresh and positive to the evolution of stylized formats, set structures, folklore stories and meaning-laden steps that constitute the staple ingredients of tradition. “Duet 4 One”, danced by Seema Patel and choreographed by Gauri Sharma Tripathi, cast the spotlight on shimmering turns and glittering eyes. This promising performer added vitality to a vigorous composition, ending on a crescendo. The notion that, through her performance, she achieved ‘unity of one with the light’ (as described in the programme notes) was entirely credible. “Shakthi” was danced with dazzlingly precise footwork by Divya Kasturi (co-choreographed by Divya Kasturi and her teacher Udupi Laxminarayan). Kasturi represented a new shine of polished brilliance within the strict structure of the bharatanatyam form: strength and poise were exquisitely combined. The lights were on and she was most certainly at home.

[Please note a version of this review will be published in PULSE magazine’s forthcoming Autumn 2006 issue -- author]

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