Review: Akademi in song of the city at The Vault, Southwark Playhouse

Performance: 5 - 6 August 2011
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Monday 8 August 2011

Akademi 'Song of the City' 5-6 August, The Vault, Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Peter Schiazza 2010

In the dark and somewhat dank environs of The Vaults at Southwark Playhouse, two silhouetted male figures are outlined against a pair of backlit tunnels. One is dressed in an elaborate velvet tailcoat, the other in a cowl-fronted lycra clubbing costume; poet and businessman, each dances to his own rhythm in this new production from exuberant South Asian dance choreographer Ash Mukherjee.

Anyone familiar with Mukherjee’s work on the BBC shows Move Like Michael Jackson and So You Think You Can Dance will recognise the flamboyant combination of temple dance and modern ballet used here; Bharatanatyam’s sculptural poses and expressive hand gestures flow seamlessly into graceful développés and skittish leaps. Italian dancer Gian Luca Loddo will himself be known to SYTYCD*fans, having reached the final 20 earlier this year. He’s joined by male ballet dancer *Kim Amundsen and the sublime Kamala Devam, a former member of Shobana Jeyasingh‘s company. The three performers are all versatile technicians and make fluid the fusion of classical South Asian dance, ballet and contemporary doublework.

song of the city celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore, the poet and Nobel laureate celebrated for his sensitive and modern Bengali verse. Tagore’s works often combine ideas of opposition and duality – nature and culture, idealism and realism. Here, working in their three contrasting styles, the trio reflect a layered series of binary oppositions – East versus West, light versus dark, art versus commerce, woman versus man. The contrasts are effective if sometimes a little obvious – Loddo loses his blue frock coat at one point to appear on stage as an angel of light clad all in white dancing on the tips of his toes, while behind him Amundsen slams his black-clothed body to the floor in earthy frustration.

The city theme is further suggested by William Huntley‘s urban film projections and Arun Gosh‘s modern Karnatic score. Gosh himself pops up beside the audience from time to time, playing urgently on his clarinet as the three dancers connect and disconnect, trying each other out in different combinations. Towards the end, Devam’s female muse physically unites the two males, joining their hands together to suggest that the love they seek may be with one another rather than with her. It’s an interesting inversion of the usual love-triangle narrative, and one I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in a South Asian dance performance before.

Unusually, Mukherjee himself does not perform as a dancer, but appears on stage to sing a lyric of Tagore’s in a pleasant voice for a brief moment in the second half. Mukherjee’s two male avatars are both capable performers, but it is the exquisite Devam who commands our attention whenever she appears on stage. Whether she is stationary, narrating a story of love with delicate abhinayas or travelling across the stage with extended leaps and weighted drops she is never less than totally riveting to watch.

Mukerjee’s choreography is easy enough on the eye and readable, and the fusion of grounded, upright Bharatanatyam with the lightness of ballet and the spinal fluidity of contemporary dance likewise pleasing, but I would have liked to see more new ground broken both narratively and in terms of movement material. Previous works Affluenza and The Meeting Place, using similar combinations of the classical and the contemporary, received somewhat mixed reviews. song of the city is a largely more coherent work; while it could still stand to take more risks artistically, it also represents a clear development for this promising young choreographer. I’ll be watching to see what he does next.

_*song of the city* _*is an Akademi production:* **”“:

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