Darbar Festival London: Indian Adventures of Sitar and Dance bill with Mangaldas, Khoo and Banerjee

Mavin Khoo (Darbar Festival supplied publicty image).<br />© Wong Horng Yih. (Click image for larger version)
Mavin Khoo (Darbar Festival supplied publicty image).
© Wong Horng Yih. (Click image for larger version)

Aditi Mangaldas, Mavin Khoo and Sahana Banerjee
Indian Adventures of Sitar and Dance bill

Part of Darbar Festival
London, Sadler’s Wells
11 November 2017

The Darbar Festival has been celebrating Indian classical music for a number of years, but now at Sadler’s Wells it has an additional dance component curated by Akram Khan, showcasing different forms. This performance included an untitled Bharatanatyam solo from Mavin Khoo, and a kathak work Immersed from Aditi Mangaldas, which are presented either side of a virtuoso performance on sitar by Shahana Banerjee, accompanied by tabla player Supreet Deshpande.

It’s a substantial programme like others in this festival, this one lasting well over three and a half hours. Audiences for the Indian classics have admirable stamina. The presentation is relaxed and informal. Sandeep Virdee, the affable Artistic Director of Darbar, and Akram Khan stroll onstage for a chat with the audience as the stage is reset for the sitar player.

Sahana Banerjee (Darbar Festival supplied publicty image).© Sandeep Virdee. (Click image for larger version)
Sahana Banerjee (Darbar Festival supplied publicty image).
© Sandeep Virdee. (Click image for larger version)

Mavin Khoo has had a long career in the UK, choreographing and appearing in contemporary works, and acting as rehearsal director for Akram Khan. Here he works in a purely classical Bharatanatyam mode, accompanied by four musicians.  Khoo is bare chested, his palms and the soles of his feet are painted red and he sports an elaborate costume of red, gold and green.

The work is occasionally accompanied by a voiceover in English describing the romantic love and desire of the heroine for her lover which seems to suggest a desire for union with the divine, and the loss and death of the loved one. Khoo becomes the love-struck maiden. His hands flutter, he mimes gestures that follow the voiceover, flinging back an invisible garment, and steals coy flirtatious glances at the audience. He revels in his assumed femininity.

If you had been thinking that Indian dance stories might be too rarefied or complex to follow, this could convince you otherwise.  As the tone darkens towards loss, he becomes a more fey, otherworldly, creature. He sits and only his face and the movements of his hands and arms convey feeling, one of the moments most warmly applauded by the audience.

Moments of overt narrative are linked by more propulsive and fiercely energetic dance moves. There is a surprising lightness and height in Khoo’s jump, alongside the firm downward commitment to the earth and the slap of feet against the stage.   He shows great control in repeated turns while balanced on one foot. He was ably supported by and interacted with his musicians, including the vocalist OS Arun, whose velvet voice wrapped itself around the performance beautifully. The audience response was ecstatic – for both the musicians and the dancer.

The performance was being filmed by Sky Arts. Usually this does not create too much distraction for the audience. Here however one of the cameras on the first circle level was deployed on a long metal boom which stretched out about a third of the way over the stalls.  The operator kept it in almost constant motion throughout the performance, up, down and across. At many points it passed directly across the view of the performers for anyone sitting on the left of the auditorium. So much camera motion was irritating and seemed unnecessary, particularly for the central section, where the musicians remained still and seated throughout.  Sky Arts viewers might one day enjoy an uninterrupted view denied to the live audience.

A light installation from Aideen Malone provided the only set, but it was an elegant construction. A large grid of hanging orange lanterns can be individually lit and raised or lowered. These were formed into a glittering curtain behind the sitar player. At the beginning of Immersed these all rest on the floor unlit and light up and rise in a billowing wave under which Aditi Mangaldas advances towards the audience.

There’ a very different feel about this work to the opening piece. Mangaldas is herself rather than taking on other characters, and breaks off to address the audience directly. Though the work is essentially a devotional piece about Krishna, she tells us she grew up in a secular household and isn’t particularly religious. For her Krishna is the life force itself, and that is what she is celebrating.

Aditi Mangaldas (Darbar Festival supplied publicty image).© Dinesh Khanna. (Click image for larger version)
Aditi Mangaldas (Darbar Festival supplied publicty image).
© Dinesh Khanna. (Click image for larger version)

As for Khoo, Mangaldas, a truly musical dancer, is accompanied by four musicians and has a deep and instinctive rapport with them. They get their share of the limelight when she exits the stage for costume changes.  All these outfits are designed to flare out beautifully in her many spins. She seems to enjoy the space provided by Sadler’s main stage, showing us an impressive long diagonal of whirling kathak turns.

Her mastery of the form is not all about speed and attack. She displays immense control of the use of the bells at her ankles.  The light dims, the musicians fall silent, and she steadily diminishes the sound of the bells to all we hear is a steady shimmering tinkling rustle, fading and returning like the sound of rain blown by the wind.  It’s an exquisite, enchanting effect.

Most of the dance on UK stages is the preserve of the young and it was good to see mature creators and performers valued for their experience bringing the results of refining their art.  The sitar player Shahana Banerjee, resplendent here in a turquoise and orange sari, has performed since she was a child and seemingly possesses hands of steel which can make the sitar sound like an entire orchestra.  The mix of music and dance within a single programme offered pleasing contrasts. It might be an intimate art form but it claimed the large Sadler’s Wells space for its own and met with an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response.

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