Interview: Mayuri Boonham Q&A

Wednesday 15 December 2010

ATMA - Mayuri BoonhamPhoto: Nuno Santos

Since disbanding Angika, the dance company she ran jointly with Subathra Subramaniam in 2008, choreographer Mayuri Boonham has been on a journey to discover new creative directions. Following a visit to the Elephanta Caves in India (a UNESCO World Heritage site) she returns to the UK to launch her brand new company. ATMA makes its London debut with a double bill of new work at Rich Mix, on Wednesday 1 December 2010…

How did you first get into dance? **I saw Sandhya dance in V Shantaram’s Hindi film *Jal Bin Macchli* (“Fish Without Water”). I was utterly struck when Sandhya scooped a fish out of the water then danced imitating its every movement! This film had a huge impact on me. I copied the dance, rehearsed it in the living room, had a costume made just like hers and then performed it in as many Indian community events in Birmingham as I could. After seeing the film I had a vivid dream of dancing, and knowing very clearly when I woke that I wanted to be a dancer. I was 8 years old.

Do you remember the first dance performance you saw? **At these Indian community performances there were other little girls performing too. One of them happened to be dancing Bharata Natyam in full traditional costume. I still have a picture of her in my childhood dance album! She looked very sophisticated and clever, dancing very precisely a complicated combination of movements to carnatic music, which I’d never heard before. I immediately wanted to improve and learn to dance like her.

The first professional performance I saw was in a school sports hall somewhere in the dark industrial depths of Birmingham. It was difficult to find and I still don’t know how my brother and I got there. It looked deserted. Thankfully just when we were about to leave, a man emerged, let us in and hurriedly ushered us into a dark hall. House lights had gone down and as we were seated the show began. I was completely transfixed by what unfolded before me – Kathak dance, a drama dealing with difficult issues with powerful music and set-design like I’d never seen before in an Indian performance.

When the lights came back up there was a standing ovation from a full house to Ravi Shankar, who rose to take his bow behind me! Then suddenly George Harrison stood up two rows in front of us to make a speech addressed to Ravi and as my brother and I looked around it dawned on us that the audience was full of celebrities! This gripping performance is significant in first opening my eyes to very high quality Indian dance ballet. I did not know then that I was watching a dance legend like Durga Lal in a performance of Ravi Shankar’s opera *Ghanashyam*.

Eight years later I was in rehearsal for my arangetram (traditional Bharata Natyam solo debut performance) at the Bhavan Centre, London under my guru Prakash Yadagudde. Ravi Shankar and his family were visiting and I was asked to give them an impromptu performance of one of the dance pieces I was going to perform. Afterwards he gave me his blessing. I think it’s wonderful that Ravi Shankar was present at two key points in my early career.

What have you been doing since Angika finished? **I took a year’s sabbatical to think and do positive things I had been meaning to do for years, such as revisit India. I spent time in good company of close friends and colleagues with stimulating conversations over good food and wine! I also took myself out of my comfort zone by participating in Dancelines under Wayne McGregor at the Royal Opera House, which really shook things up for me. This changed the way I work now. I carried out a choreographic research project, which informed the creation of the new work Sivaloka. I’ve been leading creative and choreographic intensives and master classes for Kadam’s Unlocking Creativity course, Swindon Dance’s Academy, Hampshire Dance and Akademi ‘s Extend artists. I made a work called *Ghatam* at the invitation of FreeArt for the Kaldearte Street festival, which opened in Vitoria near Bilbao. Then I spent seven months commuting between Italy and London as my husband Nigel was working on his sculptures out there. At that same time I started building my new dance company ATMA.

What does ATMA mean and what is this new company all about? **ATMA is a sanskrit word meaning the ‘universal soul’. Variously derived from ‘an’ (to breathe, ‘at’ (to move), ‘va’ to blow and ‘tman’ (the breath). It’s the indefinable ‘fabric’ that interconnects us all. Good art touches one deeply to the core, the soul, and takes us out of the mundane, the everyday, for a moment. ATMA’s work aspires to do that.

Tell us about the new double bill Sivaloka and Ghatam?
**Sivaloka means the place or zone in which Siva, the Hindu god resides. The process for this work started just over two years ago when I visited the first retrospective of Rothko’s work in Rome after his death, then again at Tate Modern. Rothko’s Seagram Murals, a sequence of panels that looked and felt to me like a series of Siva lingams (representing the abstract). Since revisiting the great temples in India last year, I became very interested in bringing a sense of the atmospheric sacred world into the theatre, where Gods are at play and the indefinable unfolds. Later I discovered that Rothko was quoted as saying “I have been painting Greek Temples all my life without knowing it”.

The Sivaloka choreography is directly inspired by the architecture and carvings of the Elephanta Cave Temple in India (known as the home of Siva). For the soundtrack, musicians were recorded live in the actual cave in Mumbai, directed by Tapan and Gaurav (Midival Punditz). My original idea developed further to become finding a way of transporting the essence of this cave’s environment to the stage.

You use Bharata Natyam in your work. Should people expect to see the traditional South Asian Art-form?
No and I wouldn’t ever claim to be traditional or authentic. However the work I make is made with the vocabulary and technique of Bharata Natyam – it’s the only dance style I am trained in, so it is the medium with which I work. I am passionate about it. Although the form is codified in a 2000-year-old text, what others consider ‘traditional’ is also evolving. As for my work, in a way I am going back to my first inspiration of working with movement like Sandhya did in Jal Bin Macchli – that is, rather than use the symbolic gestures to mime lyrics/text in a stylistically formalized way I choose to become the thing being expressed through movement of the whole body and mind. This gives an accessibility so that audiences don’t need to be fluent in ‘reading’ the Bharata Natyam movement language. I’d like them to see and wholeheartedly enjoy Bharata Natyam easily, as I do with any other art forms such as painting, sculpture or other dance styles.

You are working with some very famous Indian stars including Midival Punditz and the singer Shankar Mahadevan. How did you meet them and what was it like working with them?
After working with Talvin Singh for Angika’s Pulse of Tala it seemed impossible there’d be someone else out there that was equally talented and visionary. I regularly hang out with musicians, go to concerts and look out for new talent rather than already established artists. I used to buy the Indian newspaper Eastern Eye at my local newsagents. They only sold one copy a week and often someone else would beat me to it! However back in 2002 I happened to pick up a copy where Midival Punditz were featured in the centre-spread. They were being proclaimed as heralding the new sound coming out of India with their first album. I was particularly struck by their humility and respect when they spoke of other artists’ influences in their work including Talvin. A few months later, as part of research for Angika’s new work *Urban Temple*, I went into the Oxford Street HMV and picked up seven albums from a range of artists in the World music section that sounded vaguely interesting – including Midival Punditz’ first album. Their work stood out miles apart from the rest with their sense of melody, composition quality, range and skill. I emailed Gaurav asking if they’d be interested in working with Angika and he replied saying they were coming to London for a gig at the Blue Note, Hoxton Square. We went to the gig and arranged a meeting at my London studio. In 2003 they composed the music for *Urban Temple* – the first of three compositions for my work as part of Angika (the other two being *Bhakti* and *Ether*). All the creative composition discussions to date have happened over the telephone between Tapan and myself, but for Sivaloka we got the chance to work in the studio in London as well as in India, which has deepened the level of our collaboration and friendship. These days Tapan and I talk regularly and are instinctively on the same page creatively. They are both an absolute joy to work with: reliable, generous and bring great ideas to the development of the work. For example, the original voice on the Sivaloka recording was not matching the intensity and mood of one of the dance sections of the choreography. So Tapan and Gaurav went back to the board, archived the singing that we’d recorded and brought in their friend and colleague Shankar Mahadevan for his voice that solved the problem. I didn’t have the opportunity of meeting Shankar Mahadevan as this work happened after I was back in London, but it is a privilege to have his voice especially for our dance. It tickles me that his name happens to be another name of Siva and Mahadevan means Supreme God! Ghatam is a comparatively lesser-known Indian percussion instrument than say the tabla, dhol or mridangam. I’ve always loved its particular sound and the process for this work began with seeing a performance by Anne Teresa De Keersmaker’s students from PARTS dancing to Steve Reich’s Drumming at The Place. The idea took shape when Talvin came round to perform a private concert in my dance studio for a close group of mutual friends. Afterwards he showed me a clip of T.H. Subhash Chandran performing on youtube. I was hooked and started to think about making a piece about this instrument! In the work the dancers perform like an ensemble of drummers. It is a lot of fun to dance.

Who have been influences on you in dance? ***Prakash Yadagudde* – my Bharata Natyam dance guru who has incredible restraint and subtlety in his performance. He set me free, encouraged and guided my creative drive. His openness and curiosity, the way he continues to evolve his Bharata Natyam is inspirational. He told me not to parrot his movements but work to make the language of Bharata Natyam my own.

*Nigel Boonham – * Sculptor and my husband. He instilled in me a sense of discipline, and necessity of daily practice in the studio. He taught me the importance of clear conceptual thinking, which is at the heart of my creative practice.

Jonathan Burrows – meeting and being guided by him was a vital turning point in my choreographic development. His mentorship fundamentally changed and influenced the way I work with Bharata Natyam.

Russell Maliphant – * I participated in the *Light Body Motion course under Russell and Michael Hulls in 2000. This influenced and gave me a key of how to start working with light in a more collaborative and focused way.

Wayne McGregor – for me *Chroma* is a benchmark piece, a role model for fearlessly and imaginatively pushing the boundaries of any classical form.

Jiri Kylian’s work for NDT – I love his imagination and quality of his productions.

What’s your favourite film?
I don’t have favourites! But ones that continue to have a place in my life and thoughts include:
Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest, and Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – all for their story-telling power.
Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay – a timeless 70’s Bollywood western for entertainment

And book? **No favourites but Joseph Conrad’s Chance – a gripping page turner and for his use of the English language; Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey for its poetic metaphors, and R.K. Narayan’s World of Nagaraj – makes me laugh everytime!

And music? **Anything from 70’s or 80’s (to party to!; Peteris Vask’s Distant Light and Van Morrison

What’s next for ATMA / Mayuri Boonham? **I’ve been appointed artistic director for EKANATYAMHampshire Dance’s new young South Asian Dance company, the first one of its kind in the UK. We’ve just completed the auditions and I’ll be making a new touring work for them in 2011; as well continue touring ATMA’s new double bill.

ATMA are at Rich Mix on Wed 1 December 2010
Tickets £12 (£10 concessions)
The are also running dance workshops for Key Stages 3 & 4 and Post 16 students introducing the core movement principles of the Bharata Natyam dance.
more details/booking

ATMA tours to Barnsley, Eastleigh, Lincoln, Leicester, Swindon. Find details on their Facebook page

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