The warm buzz upon entering the Place Theatre created an atmospheric contrast with the early November chill outside. Little girls, bundled in winter coats, chased after one another in the lobby, families gathered around chatting, and partners with bunches of flowers in hand waved to one another from across the entryway. The stage was set for what was clearly to be a community affair; the beauty of being in a shared artistic space was palpable.
It would be my first time watching a non-narrative dance piece, as well as my introduction to kathak (a classical North Indian dance style), so I was excited to journey into what was for me, a new artistic form. I did not anticipate just how sensational and emotive the piece was going to be, and the extraordinary skill and artistry I was being granted the privilege to witness.
The artistic director behind the piece, Urja Desai Thakore, has been working towards a ‘new kind of kathak’, and performed alongside the dancers of the Pagrav Dance Company as well as having trained them. Her sensitive style was fascinating to behold. The personal nature of the work and the seriousness of her endeavour translated perfectly, without the need for traditional narrative, through the skill, movement and energy generated throughout the dance.
The piece involved a lyrical interplay of separation and reintegration, with an uninterrupted and intensely emotive musical accompaniment. The dancers all had a fascinatingly unique style, yet remained in harmony with one another, each boasting incredible technicality and thus reflecting the subjective-objective dynamism that the work embodied. Quoting the interviewer at the post-show talk, this was truly "dancing that makes you feel alive." Going further, it was also dancing that reminds you of the aliveness of others, the seriousness of their lives and feelings mirrored in the sincerity of their artwork.
The non-narrative style nonetheless formed an abstract energetic story. In our post-show discussion, Thakore shared with us that she had a personal narrative in mind whilst devising the piece. A symbiosis occurred between the classical Indian form she was trained in and what is contemporary for Thakore, namely her life in London. Thakore's solo—if you can call it that, given the interwoven nature of the work—was particularly fascinating to me. Her facial expressions reflected a curiosity about something, and through movement she brought it closer to her, worked with it, and allowed herself to be mystified by this abstract ‘force’.
Towards the end of the piece, with all the dancers together, I had the impression that a regaining of control had occurred with regards to this force. It seemed to me that this was a metaphor for no less than the core mystery of life. It was almost something that couldn’t be understood through words, with the musicians feeding into the energy and, most importantly, feeling it too. It was palpable to them, to the dancers, and to the audience. There was a purpose that defied the need for definition. It felt sacred and transcendent. I was very grateful to Thakore for allowing me to be a part of that, to witness the journey. The drums, singing and lighting all contributed to this ambitious and thought-provoking effect, as the dance dealt with vast ideas physically, through form and technique.
I am reminded of the late Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti’s assertion that "We live by words, and words become our prison." There was almost something more beautiful about dealing with sacred themes in such a lyrical format, without the interference of words. The energy of the dance alone was transferable via sensory input; no metaphor was needed to grasp the seriousness and beauty of the work. Indeed, words alone, as in this review, cannot truly encompass the magic which was transferred in this theatrical space - you must simply see the show yourself.
When asked about the barriers to Indian art being showcased in London today, Thakore shared that she felt this related to a lack of awareness of the classical form—something I could attest to, as this was my first introduction to it. Thakore’s goal for kathak is that it one day receives the same stage and recognition as ballet, as it requires an equally developed level of technical skill and control.
Something Thakore said stuck with me: "It’s okay that it doesn’t make sense to you currently, it doesn’t have to."
With regards to the neoclassical, non-narrative nature of Aunusthan, something Thakore said has stuck with me: "It’s okay that it doesn’t make sense to you currently, it doesn’t have to!" For me, this pertains to the non-static nature of life and art; the dance goes on.
Without losing the classical elements that make kathak such a wonderful art form, Thakore manages to stay true to who she is as an artist, merging her past and present journey in dance. She told us during the talk that she wanted to take the audience somewhere energetically, and she really did, so a big thank you to her, the wonderful dancers, musicians, technical crew and The Place theatre for making it all happen.
Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.