Perth International Arts Festival, February 11.
Mostly when we see Kathak dance it is in the exhilarating contemporary form created by Akram Khan. Khan, who is of Bangladeshi heritage but born in the UK, has made a singular body of work – often with other high-profile artists – from the fusion of the ancient classical dance of his forebears and the Western dance he encountered as a teenager. Next-generation Kathak exponent Aakash Odedra was also born in the UK and is also a hybrid man as anyone who saw his solo show Rising in Perth or Brisbane last year can attest – his program included works by Khan, Russell Maliphant and Sidi Larbi Cherkoui.
Khan’s company tours indefatigably and most of his key works have been widely seen: Ma, Vertical Road, Sacred Monsters (in which he danced with Sylvie Guillem), in-i (with Juliette Binoche), iTMOi, Zero Degrees and Gnosis among them. Desh was a highlight of the 2014 Brisbane Festival; Zero Degrees, in which Khan collaborated with Sidi Larbi Cherkoui and sculptor Antony Gormley, remains one of my most highly prized dance-theatre experiences.
Khan’s dazzling skills have taught audiences around the world much about Kathak’s vivid beauties of whirlwind speed, tight spins, rhythmic complexity and intricate patterns made by stamping feet and agile hands. It’s not museum dance, though. He honours Kathak’s emphasis on storytelling, but presents his own, often deeply personal, stories.
Nor is Aditi Mangaldas’s form of Kathak frozen in time, but with the slightly older star we see something different and fascinating; a presentation of Kathak that is responsive to the world as it is now but more intrinsically attached to its roots. One is tinglingly aware of the ties between form, content and culture, even if able to apprehend the riches only glancingly (we really do not see enough of the traditional classical dances of our near neighbours). Mangaldas, who is greatly admired by Khan, was born in India and her company appears there regularly as well as on international tours. She describes her works specifically, listing them separately: classical Kathak, contemporary Kathak, and a union of both. In the last category Mangaldas places Within, the work chosen by Wendy Martin to lead off the bounteous dance program in her first Perth International Arts Festival.
Mangaldas’s is a more pure form of Kathak than Khan’s, if you like, even though one imagines purists in her homeland might take issue with her introduction of highly political present-day concerns, filtered through time-honoured mythologies. Within starts in darkness and moves into the light in two linked but distinctively different works, the combination of which is greatly moving. The first, Knotted, is a howl of sorrow and rage; the second, Unwrapped, is devotional and ecstatic.
Knotted is impelled by the appalling fate of the young Indian woman so viciously raped in 2012 that she died of her injuries. There is no literal reference to it but the story of Nirbhaya (“Fearless”), as she was known to protect her identity, cannot fail to be uppermost in the mind. Nor can the crushing oppression of many Indian women, particularly the impoverished. Terror and anguish roil through Knotted, particularly in two urgent solos danced by Mangaldas. In the first she is the shivering embodiment of fear; in the second she is discovered spread close to the ground in a confining circle, almost non-human in her abjection. But defiance increasingly takes over and she comes to own and define the space, a burning physical force and a charismatic presence.
Knotted starts with men and women running across a dimly lit stage, their haste speaking of dread. Some drop to the ground for a moment to circle swiftly on their knees as if in supplication and are then off again. Dancers hit their hands together and heads recoil as if struck, or lean perilously backwards and swirl their backs. Sidelights illuminate fallen bodies lying on top of one another, a jumble of humanity where one person is indistinguishable from the next. In this 40-minute, episodic piece the imagery can at times seem somewhat generalised or obvious but Mangaldas’s passion, her eyes burning into the auditorium like searchlights, is thrilling.
In the second half Mangaldas and her lovely company bring balm in the form of Unwrapped’s gorgeous, uplifting classicism. The dancers are accompanied by onstage musicians and the tinkling of the bells wrapped around their ankles; the fitted trousers and dramatically flowing tunics in muted earthy colours seen in Knotted give way to delicately floating gold garments. In an atmosphere of calm and gentle introspection, dancers’ heads are wound about with cloth and then unveiled in a tranquil image of self-awareness and understanding. The finesse and individuality of Mangaldas’s dancers are displayed in formal groupings but the undeniable highlight is a lighting-fast, lustrous solo for the choreographer, who darts and flutters like a joyous hummingbird.
As with other events in the first days of the festival (Claire Cunningham’s Guide Gods, reviewed below; Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donohoe’s Every Brilliant Thing) there was a palpable connection between artists and audience. The feeling of something being generously shared, not just seen, was paramount and even in the most challenging of subjects there was the strongest affirmation of life.