★★★★☆ Classical Indian dance that delivers both narrative intelligence and jaw-dropping virtuosity.

Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA
February 11, 2016

Despite its ancient origins, dating as far back as the fourth century BC, the traditional Indian dance form of Kathak has emerged in recent years as a surprisingly fertile foundation for contemporary dance makers. Internationally revered choreographer Akram Khan has been a major pioneer in folding the distinctive language of Kathak into a more modern vernacular of dance theatre, and Khan’s protégé, Aakash Odera, has begun to earn an increasingly global reputation as the natural successor to Khan’s bold reimagining of this classical Indian choreography.

By contrast, Aditi Mangaldas, one of the world’s most highly regarded Kathak danseuses, is more of a purist. The vocabulary of her dance works is derived almost exclusively from the characteristic break-neck swirls, percussive foot stamps and sharply carved, outstretched gestures found in the classical iteration of Kathak, but that’s not to say that this dance doesn’t communicate with a contemporary audience with the same immediacy as its more progressive practitioners. Fundamentally, Kathak is rooted in storytelling, transcribing the emotionally vibrant narratives of Indian folklore into movement, so even when this highly structured dance technique is used to explore a more abstracted model of expression, the result is saturated with a powerful narrative intention.

Mangaldas’ Within is a diptych of contrasting works, offering a showcase of Kathak’s generous versatility. Beginning with Knotted, we are brought into a dark, turbulent realm of frenetic conflict. Figures dart across the stage, appearing from the shadows just long enough to offer a desperate burst of gestures before immediately disappearing back into the inky blackness.

Inspired by the horrific 2012 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in South Delhi, this piece stares down some deeply unsettling narrative undercurrents, but it also celebrates the resilience and strength of the female spirit. The Indian legal system does not allow the names of rape victims to be published by the press, so the name “Nirbhaya” – meaning “fearless” in Hindi – was adopted by the media and the public. Within is this brave defiance made flesh; the various episodic sections of the work orbit around a central female protagonist who is seemingly pulled through an onslaught of physical struggles, emerging changed yet dauntless from this trauma.

The worthiness and emotional impact of this source material are easy to identify, but this piece is weakest when it strays too close toward a literal interpretation. The narrative aspects of Within are mostly metaphorical, but when this is expressed via a less choreographic means, it results in a rather generic, almost clichéd variety of angst. Yet there are some moments of inspired creativity that seem to defy physical logic, such as one transfixing solo that slowly builds from pained, twisting convulsions to a climax of breathtakingly assured fury. I have rarely seen on stage such a poetically articulated journey from vulnerability to strength.

From this darkness, Unwrapped brings us back into the light. Exploring a less specific theatrical impetus, this gloriously uplifting piece is classical Kathak – albeit with a contemporary hue – at its most virtuosic. Dressed in golden silk, their ankles clad in bells and faces covered in a shroud, six dancers are accompanied by a traditional ensemble of Indian musicians performing live. This piece is almost boastful in its unrestrained agility, propelled by a scattershot of thrilling asymmetrical rhythms that defy the ear’s anticipation.

Unquestionably, the most exhilarating element of Unwrapped is Mangaldas herself. Appearing on stage as a silhouette against the warm amber glow of the backdrop, she is a dancer as expressively astute as any ballet étoile. Her artistry and poise, her dramatic gifts and unshakable technique are truly astounding; dance as effortlessly compelling as this is a joy to watch in itself, but underpinned by the questioning intelligence of Mangaldas, it becomes something transformative.


Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company present Within, at the Heath Ledger Theatre until February 14.

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