Sadler’s Wells Wild Card season of performances curated by younger artists new to the Wells roster returns for the autumn with an evening of classical South Asian dance chosen and danced by Seeta Patel. A classical bharatanatyam artist also trained in contemporary dance, Patel has a diverse performance history, working with DV8 Physical Theatre, Shobana Jeyasingh and Mavin Khoo as well as presenting her own live theatre works and independent film projects. Double-bill Something Then, Something Now focuses on Patel’s classical practice and showcases the richness of bharatanatyam tradition in the UK.
The evening opens with a lengthy traditional solo choreographed by Mavin Khoo in which the dancer performs a powerful, all-consuming love for the absent Lord Krishna and her desire for him to return to her. Sequences of pure dance featuring rapid, rhythmic footwork are broken up by sections of expressive mime, in which the dancer confides her feelings of longing to an unseen sakhi or female friend. Patel’s footwork is clean and musical, her upper body strong and sculptural throughout the demanding hour-long solo.
Patel collaborated with renowned designer Guy Hoare on the lighting design for the piece, and there are times when the lighting distracts from the clarity and energy of her dancing. Patel appears in the opening moments of the piece in a strong backlight that emphasises the sculptural quality of the dancer’s poses and the precision of her hand gestures; the heavy silhouetting on the face also obscures the characteristic facial expressions that are part of bharatanatyam, and costs Patel some of the connection with her audience. A frantic, strobed backlight chase overeggs the lighting action too much; better are the sections in which the dancer is bathed in a golden desert light, her animated face visible and emotionally legible.
Patel’s performance is ably accompanied by a musical ensemble including the talented vocalist Y Yadavan, whose pure tones and velvety delivery make an ideal foil for the metrical cadences of the dance material. In traditional appreciations of bharatanatyam, it is often said that successful performers express the bhava or mood of a piece such that the audience experiences the rasa or taste of the character’s emotions; Patel certainly gave a virtuosic and flavourful rendition of the love in separation.
The second part of the evening is performed by renowned dancer, teacher and singer Pushkala Gopal, a stage veteran with a wealth of rich experience to share with her audience in the art of storytelling through abhinaya (mime and gesture). Gopal’s staging is classically simple: seated cross-legged on a square podium, surrounded by her musicians; a skilled raconteur, she brings an easy warmth and a contemporary immediacy to ancient stories and lyrics.
Gopal has a pleasing, resonant alto voice; it’s her expressive, mobile features and beautifully-shaped hands that command our attention. Pure abhinaya, without the vigorous pure dance steps that usually accompany a bharatanatyam performance, is an unusual treat to enjoy at length on the London stage, and it’s a joy to witness such an accomplished veteran performer sharing her knowledge and artistry so generously.
Bharatanatyam, in its classical and contemporary forms, has a fair following in the UK but is not so often seen in the main London dance houses. It’s great that Patel – and Sadler’s – had the courage to present such a boldly in-depth exploration of the artform, one that demonstrates that South Asian dance has both strong roots and a healthy future in Britain.