Something then, Something now

Seeta Patel, Mavin Khoo et al
Seeta Patel and ensemble
The Lowry Studio

Seeta Patel Credit: Stephen Berkeley White

As a rule, a reviewer aims to bring to his or her chosen topic a little more knowledge than the average reader. Many of us are rather obsessed with theatre and this obsession leads us to attend more performances and spend more time thinking about and articulating our thoughts, on the strengths and weaknesses of a show, than our readers would ever care to expend.

Tonight, I must confess to knowing little about the South Asian classical dance form of Bharatanatyam. For once, perhaps this is not such a bad thing, as this review must now be written from the heart rather than the head.

Some of you may have spotted a glimpse of Seeta Patel as one of the mentors in this year’s BBC Young Dancer of the Year competition. Tonight, Patel herself takes centre stage. Bharatanatyam is essentially a solo dance form, often giving expressive interpretations of tales of love involving Hindu gods.

Tonight’s main piece lasts over an hour—Patel determinedly defends the longer form against bite-sized extracts more commonly used in festivals and on television. She is right in this. Imagine a world in which only popular scenes of Shakespeare were ever performed, because the whole plays were deemed too demanding or time-consuming; or a world where no orchestra played more than a single movement of any great symphony.

Patel deserves praise and encouragement for insisting on performing more extended pieces. It is one way of showing respect for her art. Another is to perform, without rest, for one hour. It is an hour in which her concentration seems unwavering; a marvel of stamina, grace and sensitivity. The dance form involves the whole body—steps are balletic, geometric and occasionally redolent of flamenco (which is clearly the descendent of this and Kathak, another dance form from the Indian subcontinent).

Varnam in Raga Anandabhairavi tells the story of ‘love in separation’ as a young woman reveals to her friend the depth of her love for the god Krishna. Bharatanatyam utilises the whole body including some floor work in which Patel’s arms, hands, eyes and mouth communicate an astonishing range of human emotion, each one recognisable to anyone who has known the rapturous joys and agonising uncertainties of romantic devotion.

Patel’s delivery is intense and persuasive. No doubt any young man in the audience was left feeling, whenever her dance seemed directed towards him, as blessed and exalted as Krishna himself. The charms of Bharatanatyam are, I suspect, not exclusively religious.

Patel’s performance is all the more remarkable once we understand that, although the basis is choreographed (by Patel and Mavin Khoo) and greatly rehearsed, each performance is at the same time a conversation between singer (in this company, the excellent Y Yadavan) and dancer.

As the vocals improvise around a theme, with mood and tone varying from evening to evening, so the dancer must be alert to interpreting in the moment. Like a great actor, the dancer of Bharatanatyam must thoroughly inhabit her character whilst remaining open and responsive to the ever-evolving emoting of her collaborator. When questioned on how she copes with these demands, Patel replies with enigmatic eloquence: “I try not to try”.

Besides Y Yadavan, Senthuran Premakumar (percussion) and Acuthan Sripathmanathan (violin) are ably conducted by Vanathi Bosch. How rewarding to have a live dance event accompanied by live (not pre-recored) music. Guy Hoare’s lighting design enhances and emphasises each mood and pose the dancer strikes, drawing the audience ever deeper into tales which Patel’s movement gives poetic physical form.

There are only about fifty of us to witness this stunning exhibition of a venerable art form being ever renewed. This is good for creating intimacy between dancer and audience, but far, far short of what Seeta Patel’s captivating show deserves.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson