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British South Asian dance and the Bessies
- Sanjeevini Dutta

October 30, 2014

The New York Dance Performance Awards, affectionately known as the Bessies, represent a recognition of dancers by their peers, judged as they are by forty representatives of the dance world. In the award's thirty-year history, only one Indian dancer (2013 Shantala Shivalingappa) has previously received the accolade. This makes a win at the 2014 Bessies ceremony even more exceptional for UK-based dancers Akram Khan and Aakash Odedra.

The name of Akram Khan will be familiar to anyone, even with a passing interest in dance, so well is his reputation sealed as the outstanding British Kathak and contemporary performer / choreographer. Currently three of his shows tour simultaneously on the international circuit. The creator of such seminal works as Zero Degrees and Desh, collaborator with the likes of composer Nitin Sawhney, sculptor Anish Kapoor, ballet dancer Sylvie Guillem and screen actor Juliette Binoche, Khan has enjoyed unprecedented success.

Aakash Odedra is more of the new-kid-on-the block, taking the space that Khan has created by putting contemporary Kathak on the world dance map. A chance meeting at a performance in rural Suffolk with American choreographer and director Otis Sallid led to Aakash being offered a part in a production to commemorate the King of Soul, James Brown, at the Apollo Theatre, New York. The original offer had gone to Khan and when he was unable to accept, Sallid made the journey to Leicester's Curve Theatre to check out the young dancer. The rest is history, as they say.

So what is in the DNA of the British South Asian dancers that has put them under the international spotlight? In the perennial heredity-environment debate, we can balance natural ability with a nurturing surrounding. Yes, they are born under a star, as both Khan and Odedra showed astonishing dance skills at an early age, but experience tells us that there are many superbly gifted youngsters who do not necessarily make it to successful professional careers as our two. So what factors have been at work to take Khan and Odedra to dizzying heights?

There is something unique about the British Asian dance scene. Firstly, hail the subsidised arts sector of the UK. The state recognises the value of artists and their contribution to society. It has a rigorous policy of funding with strings attached - strings of quality assessment. An open and transparent application procedure and monitoring by 'relationship managers' underpins the system. You do not need political or social patronage.

Secondly, the policy of recognising and supporting culturally diverse art forms has been practised by the Arts Council (independent body set up by statute post war, brainchild of economist Maynard Keynes) since the 80s. Akram Khan would have the opportunity to receive his dance training with Guru Pratap Pawar at the Bhavan and later at Akademi's Kathak classes. Aakash Odedra similarly received huge support and backing by dance agencies Sampad and later Akademi, training under Nilima Devi in Leicester. The South Asian dance network, which has a dozen larger and smaller companies working for the collective development of the art form criss-crossed across the small island, creates a hub for South Asian dancers to make and tour their work.

Anand Bhatt, himself a dancer turned manager of Aakash Odedra was very clear when I asked him to what he thought British South Asian dance owed its success. "We are so many of us dancers concentrated in a small area, competing and co-operating." He is referring to a critical mass that has developed within South Asian dance. In the UK a number of Kathak dance artists tour at the international level and perhaps slightly less of the Bharatanatyam persuasion. In that context the name of Shobana Jeyasingh cannot be left out when looking at the architects of contemporary South Asian dance. Her contribution began a decade and half ahead of Khan and continues to instil British dance with thoughtful and original work.

The well-spring of vitality of South Asian dance (a term adopted by the funders to cover dance forms of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) is the fact that it is in dialogue with other forms of dance. Both Khan and Odedra have gone beyond their classical training: Khan studied contemporary dance at De Montfort University and finished at the Northern School of Contemporary dance; Akash learned on the job while contemporary choreographers Khan, Maliphant and Larbi were creating pieces for him for his show Rising. The persistent need for 'new' by the funders is a push over the comfort zone of dancers which has led to vocabularies expanding.

There is no doubt that Western contemporary vocabularies have been enriched by the rhythmic patterns of Kathak and sharp jathis of Bharatanatyam; the groundedness of South Asian forms has lent an epic and majestic quality in repose and abhinaya has infused western forms including ballet. In an evening of dance commissioned by Artistic Director of English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo, Akram Khan's stand-out piece Dust had much to do with a narrative impulse and a more overt exploration of emotion than either of the two creations by Royal Ballet's Liam Scarlett and the darling of the contemporary world (a personal favourite) Russell Maliphant. In that way we are seeing a genuine two-way movement between South Asian and Western dance.

The opening-up of dance to influences of the wider world better serves the exploration of who we are and how we fit into the universe. We have got some things right, so let's applaud the collective success of - yes, I will use the politically correct term - South Asian dance in Britain.

Sanjeevini Dutta is the Editor of Pulse a quarterly print magazine and website which aims to connect, inform and energise South Asian dance and music communities in the UK, keeping a global perspective.

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