Feature: Sonia Sabri's Kathakbox

Wednesday 20 April 2011

!! Kathakbox is choreographer and Kathak dancer Sonia Sabri’s latest production, which London audiences can catch at The Place on Saturday 7 May. Combining Kathak, body percussion, hip hop poetry and movement, it’s a collaborative project involving a team of dancers, musicians, spoken word, vocal and beatbox artists.
Sonia Sabri is also hosting and performing Why Do South Asian Dance? as part of the Alchemy Festival at Southbank Centre later this week (Thu 21 April).
We managed to catch up with her during her busy schedule…

What is Kathakbox about?.
Kathakbox explores ‘tick box culture’ and how we have easily become accustomed to it. Kathakbox makes us think about in, out and around the box and discover the definition of who we are as individuals and whether containment is just a tick on a form or does it actually manifest within today’s social fabric. Though it sounds like a serious topic, the piece is upbeat and surprises occur when we re-shape our boxes…
There are four dance artists, myself, Amayra Fuller, Nathan Geering and Suzanne Grubham, from Kathak, Hip Hop, African and Contemporary backgrounds; Musical Director Sarvar Sabri (Tabla vox, Kavitt and composition); Spoken Word and Vocal artist Marcina Arnold and Beatboxer & Punjabi rapper Shan Bansil.

You’ve combined the Indian classical dance form Kathak and Hip Hop culture. Why Hip Hop?
I have always been fascinated by the similarities between the two genres, history and the essential dance elements they both possess. For example, Kathak has what we call today as ‘rap’ (in hip Hhp) which is known as Kavitt in Kathak. The dance artist recites the composition which could be of any subject matter – politics, love, war etc, with complex rhyme and rhythmic structures and dances in synch with the kavitt. The relationship between movement and music, the language of the body, stepping patterns, beatbox or padhant (which derives from Indian and African dance traditions), mime and improvisation, spoken word and many more form the foundation of both artforms. The relationship with the audience is a key feature too – and to always demonstrate a ‘wow’ factor to get spectators and fellow artists revved up!

How did all the artists come to be involved in the project?
Apart from the musical director, all the artists were head hunted because I needed to find the core of Kathak within them. This doesn’t mean the actual training but the philosophy of it including the rawness of movement and interactive performance. Kathak means ‘the storyteller’ and I searched for the artists based on how they conveyed their story through their respective artforms and their relationship with their audience. I knew this collaboration required a particular sensibility from the artists and openness to challenges.
The musicians were discovered by chance and have not been part of touring dance productions previously. Their energy and creativity has been a wonderful asset to the work. Two of the dancers, musical director and the beatbox artist were part of two R&Ds (research & development periods) one of which was part of The Place’s Choreodrome 2009 – and we had Richard Alston as our mentor.

How did the collaboration work practically?
The musicians and dancers were in the same studio much of the time, bouncing back ideas and using each other as stimulus. It was very demanding as an artistic director, choreographer and dance artist to manage the whole team bubbling with ideas and suggestions! The music and texts were created alongside the crafting of the choreography. On many occasions we would just improvise for long periods of time to allow the discovery of something new and unpredictable. Other times we discussed possible ideas and did some creative tasks which led to creating interesting segments of work. Many times in the evenings after the studio work, I took time to reflect and determine how I wanted certain segments to feel and sound and would choreograph and direct the following day.

Sonia Sabri Company 'Kathakbox' Photographer: Mahasiddhi Did you find that the different artists became influenced by each other in any way?
The making of Kathakbox was an incredibly organic process and it had to be because we needed to feed off each other before formalizing a piece of work. It’s similar to when a group of people meet, they get to know each other, then overtime become friends and what inevitably happens subconsciously they pick up mannerisms or pet words of each other which is a sign of familiarity. This is part of our natural human behaviour and it is this that I used as the process for making Kathakbox. My experience of fusion in dance has been that of forcing a vocabulary or simply just a series of moves on bodies that are alien to that particular style i.e. no training or limited understanding. Our several styles placed or merged in one space.

What were the challenges of collaborating with so many people from such diverse cultural and artistic backgrounds?
There were many challenges, some of which took us all on a massive learning curve about choreography, composition and collaboration itself. Getting musicians to become part of the choreography was tough, especially when one feels safe behind a musical or electronic instrument. The biggest challenge I felt was to make my team understand the difference between a fusion project and an organically led collaborative project. The synthesis I needed to achieve was that of complete integration without losing the integrity of each artform. We have had audience members describe the work as “a Rosetta Stone”.

What were the highlights of the collaboration and were there any surprise outcomes?
We had such immense fun making the work. We learnt such fascinating things about each others art and their experiences that fed in to the work and most of all the meeting points we discovered within our artistries. For many of us, without realizing at the time, we have expanded our vocabularies through this project. For example, the Hip Hop artist in the company was teaching his class and without a second thought taught a move he had never done before and didn’t know where it came from but it still fitted within the principles of his style. He retold the moment to me and was so excited as it was like a revelation. He created a move informed by the Kathakbox process. The process and concept was a risk and I’ve never worked in this way before so the surprise outcome of the project was to experience the fantastic response from audiences at home and abroad.

What roles did Zena Edwards (poet and composer) and hip hop artist Jonzi D have in the project?
They were artistic consultants who came to observe and feedback on the work, individually, at different times of the creative process. I just needed outside eyes and ears to comment on the work in progress and especially as they are experienced in the Spoken word and Hip Hop theatre. Their feedback was useful and encouraging.

You are hosting and performing in an interactive programme ‘Why do South Asian Dance?’ at the Southbank Centre as part of the Alchemy Festival this Thursday (21 April). Could you tell us a bit more about this performance?
Following my presentation *What is South Asian dance? at last year’s Alchemy, Southbank Centre asked me back. *_Why do South Asian dance?_ will give an insight on why people still do classical dance today. As it is only an hour long, we decided to keep it to the most popular dance styles Kathak and Bhartanatyam.
Sonia Sabri Company conducted a survey among many dancers in UK asking them this very question and the responses, which have been fascintating, will feed into my presentation. The audience will have the opportunity to see performances by young students as well as myself and a reputable Bhartatanayam artist, Anusha Subramanyam. I think it’s an important event to see and learn about why it is that we become attracted to such artforms as audiences, academics, performers and teachers. It’s also a platform for artists to personally define the experience for the audience and the value of such disciplines which can sometimes be overlooked by popular culture.

Young dance students from Kathakaars and Beeja Dance Company will be performing as part of the event. Where do you see these young dancers taking South Asian dance in the future?
They themselves prove that Indian dance is a wonderful experience and can even be life-changing. The positives they experience has encouraged them to become more inquisitive about how they can use these disciplines to evoke and provoke and in what contexts it can be performed. They are the holders of the new times and I’m very excited about how imaginative they can become with age old artforms.

What’s on your ‘not to be missed’ list at the Alchemy Festival this year?
Well of course our event! Also Zarghuna Karger, Jahan-e- Khusro, Sufi Inspired Painting, Alarmel Valli and Parveen Sultana, Vayu Naidu’s stories

Your company became an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation recently. What will this mean for you?
We are delighted! Sonia Sabri Company has been in existence without regular funding for nine years and with help of many supporters is proud of the work it has produced. ACE has supported us where ever they could in the past and have seen what we can achieve with so little and still be up there with some of the larger organizations. To be an NPO will now strengthen the pillars of the company and allow us to fulfill our artistic dreams both at home and internationally. The company is looking forward to an exciting few years. I would like to take this opportunity to give a hearty thank you to all our supporters and hope to make many more.

Information and Booking

Kathakbox by Sonia Sabri Company 7 May, 8pm at The Place. Box office: 020 7121 1100

Sonia Sabri will be hosting and performing Why Do South Asian Dance? on 21 April at 6pm on the Clore Ballroom, Southbank Centre. Information: 0844 847 9910 Alchemy Festival

More on Kathakbox: www.kathakbox.co.uk

Sonia Sabri Company: www.ssco.org.uk

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