The Nehru Centre is a cosy performance space. where the viewer gets close up to every aspect of the performance. In this case that was up close to Sonia Sabri dancing four pieces of contemporary solo kathak. The intimacy means that the vibrations from the impact of the feet on stage can be felt in your seats and the floor beneath you. Sonia Sabri’s dancing is a fascinating mix of power and refinement, forceful crescendos of thrumming feet and tiny, delicate movements of the hand and fingers.
The space encourages an informality which is sometimes effective and engaging, but the impact of the dance is at times diluted by Sabri’s pausing to chat to the audience, and the last item particularly lost impetus as a result. When she is dancing rather than talking she really commands attention, resplendent in her blue and gold costume which swirls so dramatically.
The synthesis of music and dance here was expertly achieved. Shoma Dey is on harmonium and vocals, and Sarvar Sabri on tabla. His concentration is remarkable: while she is dancing he never takes his eyes from her for a second, and the link is almost telepathic.
The opening item Salaam gives its name to the whole programme. It introduces us to the percussive possibilities of her feet. A remarkable force seems to be generated by relatively small movements, only raised by an inch or so before being slapped down and yet how powerfully they register. Being so close you are even more aware of how much the ankle bells contribute to the entire sound. She demonstrated such speed and force in whirlwind turns that an earring flew off in the first piece and a replacement one in the second. After that she joked she wasn’t going to risk losing any more. The audience is responsive to her as if she was a jazz musician, breaking out into murmurs of pleasure and spontaneous spatters of applause for particularly virtuoso passages.
There’s a lot of context to get to grips with in some of these pieces. A little information is provided in a printed sheet, but Sabri is keen to provide more and introduces each piece. Much of this is very helpful. The detail about the unusual hand position that refers to a singing bird was charming and delightful prior to the second item Ta na dir dani. For the third item Bidai, it was useful to hear about the bride being transported by the carriage men to her new marital home. Here was the best opportunity to see Sabri’s command of the expressional aspects of kathak. Her facial expressions registered strongly. We could see her swaying gently as she was first transported in the carriage. The girl’s memories of playing with her dolls were tenderly portrayed, even down to tiny gestures where she recalled combing and plaiting their hair.
But sometimes the talking is less helpful. Chase, the final item built up a series of complex rhythms and counts. It was the longest piece of the evening, as the others had been a concentrated fifteen minutes or less. Here she broke off a number of times just as the tension in the piece seemed to be rising to chat to the audience with laudable wishes for peace, philosophising about what we want in this life. There was a loss of focus as a result and the work suffered from appearing to have a number of false endings. But Sabri’s audience for the most part seemed to appreciate her warmth and sincerity as much as her undoubted command of the stage. The evening as a whole had many beautiful moments with a good fusion of music and dance in a relaxed and informal setting.