ONE by Amina Khayyam - A review for Pulse Asian Dance and Music Magazine (www.pulseconnects.com)

Amina Khayyam
University of Surrey Theatre

Reviewed By Lucinda Al-Zoghbi/Sian Goldby

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Does everything really begin with one or is it that everything ends with one?’
Forming the basis of her solo kathak work, choreographer and dancer Amina Khayyam explores the numerous concepts behind the idea of One. She divides her piece into four sections, each questioning the place of One inside worldly time structures. Where does One fit within a performance? Can One ever exist?
Khayyam’s eighteen years’ training have seen her tour nationally and internationally, for companies such as Akademi and Sonia Sabri amongst others. Khayyam’s artistic focus is a collaborative one, which celebrates the stylistic uniqueness of classical kathak dance and its place within an ever-evolving modern context.     
 There is evidence of this generous collaborative spirit between the dancer and her musicians, who share a deep understanding through the language of kathak. One features Debasish Mukherjee on tabla, Tarun Jasan on sarod and vocals from Lucy Rahman, and explores her ongoing work with Mukherjee. Khayyam converses with the musicians through body language and musical structures upholding the inseparable link between the two. There is a great informality in the collaboration- it’s almost improvisatory, a refreshing approach when compared with a Western dance format.
 Stand-out images are dotted throughout the piece as reference points for the audience.  Scattered flowers provide a particularly memorable image as Khayyam playfully collects and throws them into the air.  This image is delivered with a smile that radiates throughout the auditorium to make this observer burst into a similarly beaming smile. Equally, it is impossible to look at her face and not be immediately whisked away; we tightly perch in our theatre seats whilst our minds float alongside Khayyam.  She has transported us to another world. We follow her onto a moonlit plane, where her veil flutters softly in the wind and the musky scent of dawn envelopes us.
Yes, in one sense Khayyam’s consecutive chakkadar spins and extremely fast tatkar are technically faultless. They flow effortlessly from her centre, delicately accentuated by flowery mudras. In another sense, movement doesn’t matter. With a strong abhinaya, Khayyam can reference emotive depths that span from sheer joy to deep sorrow, showing intense artistic negotiation between movement and intention. Her head tilts sweetly with her movement as she offers it to the audience, her expression filled with humble confidence.
 When thinking back on this piece it is hard to avoid the image of Khayyam’s exquisite expression entering the mind. One hears the phrase ‘her eyes are windows to her soul’ and many times discard it as inhuman nonsense. However, with Khayyam they really are. What power there is in her dance, in her story-telling, in her kathak. We cannot but yearn to encounter her again.
Khayyam for instance, moves to the microphone and is no doubt breathless, but continues to speak compact tukras and tihais, her tongue navigating the intricacies with ease. At some points the speaking is slightly out of time, however is noted and explained to the audience, and they begin again. This adds charm to the performance, involving the audience and strengthening the communicative bond. This accentuates a shared enjoyment of the dance and, as we move to the abhinaya, we are welcomingly entrusted to join Khayyam’s fascinating journey, becoming One with the dance.  The exquisite raag of the sarod and voice craft a detailed, heartfelt abhinaya.  It is this skill that makes Khayyam’s performance so powerful.  Her thumri is augmented with an extended structure and embellished movement, the accompaniment for which is calm, tranquil and yet so powerful.  


Say Something Live @The Union featuring Sleeping Robots, Kid Adrift, Mr B and Subsource

On Tuesday 14th June, the University of Surrey student’s union witnessed an event like no other. A far cry from the usual uber-produced, auto-tuned sugary pop hits that reverberate around the union’s walls, Say Something Live is a music night designed to delight the alternative taste buds.
The bill featured four bands; Surrey University based soft rock trio Sleeping Robots, rock/electronica group Kid Adrift, the lofty and heavily moustached gentleman rhymer Mr  B, and Subsource, with their heavy rock meets grinding dub-step to headline.
The gig began promisingly, with a mild to fairly generous turn out. This may of course have been a consequence of Sleeping Robots being Surrey University students themselves, baby faced and brimming with raw talent, however their presence on stage was highly professional. Their tracks were easily listenable and bop-along-able, if not slightly tame in comparison to the following act in the line-up.
Kid Adrift were next up, complete with a shabbily dressed Iain Campbell on vocals and guitar, and the outstanding voice of Rebecca Woolls, looking slightly like a wavy-haired festival-child. In direct contrast with Sleeping Robots, Kid Adrift seemed all too used to the gigging experience. Campbell skulked around the stage looking true rock star, whilst a few audience members warily eyed the keyboardist in fear that he may knock himself out on his own instrument through violent head banging.  Although the tracks they played were good; in an I’m-nodding-along-feeling-kind-of-alternative-and-cool sort of way, one couldn’t help but notice a few slips in tuning/timing, hinting that these musicians were out of practice. Also adding fuel to the fire were the band’s claims that this may be their only show in quite a long time. That aside, they  still got the crowd roaring and jumping, frenzied by the few students that they invited on stage to smash up a rather expensive looking keyboard (possibly one reason for them not being able to play for a while!).
After a mass evacuation by what felt like the entire audience to the single union bar, Mr. B graced the stage. Dressed in a smart suit and holding a banjo, this self confessed champion of ‘chap-hop’ began rapping to the audience in the Queen’s English. This man couldn’t be further away from Eminem if he tried. As Mr. B engaged in some sort of knee bend routine, akin to a parodied police officer out of the 1950s, his rapping in RP left the audience strangely captivated. They erupted in cheers after each highly amusing if not slightly samey track, injecting life-affirming humour amongst an otherwise deadly serious line-up.
Lastly, but by no means least, were Subsource, the headliners for the evening. After a last-minute drop out by previous top of the bill band Coda, Subsource valiantly picked up the gauntlet to subsequently ‘smash it’. Their music manages to blend all the best bits of rock, ska and dub-step, into a unique sound that seemed to vibrate out from the stage into waves of crazy dancing and intermittent mosh pits. Racing dub-step beats were layered over electronic scribblings, sections of melody were cut up and fed to the audience like sweets. Heavy guitar riffs were moulded around heart-stopping bass drops. Subsource make it almost impossible not to dance... and where else would you encounter a Mohican headed raspy rock singer belting out catchy lyrics whilst playing an electric double bass??!
Numbers seemed to dwindle after Mr. B, probably due to the last minute addition of the headline act. However for those who did stick around, Subsource topped off the evening in excellent style (and sweat). Adrenaline fuelled punters left the union on music high, making a nice change from frequent tear-drenched drunken lows of the normal union nights. Say Something Live nights have been an excellent addition to the University’s events calendar, bringing high quality, cheap live music to the student’s doorstep.

The Living Room - Yael Flexer and Nick Sandiland Digital Works

On entering the familiar space of PATS dance studio, an unusual scenario awaits me. A small child is happily toddling around the space, surrounded by six plainly clad dancers who are all making an attempt to copy the child. To the audience’s cooing delight, the little girl marches around with innocent glee, completely unfazed. After a while the audience settles, softened into malleable onlookers, innocently open to a plethora of metaphorical images that will henceforth be pitched from the performance arena. Or, put simply, this familiar scene of literal child’s play welcomes the audience, so we can all begin the piece at the same level.
After this brief prelude the stage is then lined with the six dancers, now childless. The dancers address each other fondly but confidently, names and fleeting comments in different languages scatter and rebound across the space like electric currents. A clear game structure becomes apparent, as each dancer takes on the ‘character’ of a certain piece of living room furniture. Shouts of ‘I’m the arm chair!’, ‘No... I’m the arm chair!’ spark comical battles between the dancers as they crescendo; elbows rigidly marking out shapes in the space, spines snaking and hands neatly folding the air. The use of witty timing makes this simple section effectively engaging, and the immediate introduction of the dancer’s names makes me feel connected to the performers, I’m part of the family, part of the furniture.
Then comes my official welcome. Yael Flexer addresses us by reeling out a list of things that we must expect from the performance, what there will and will not be, who will be dancing, when they will be dancing, and pretty much the whole structure of the piece.  There are no illusions of grandeur here. We are all adults now and this is a time for adult conversation and reflection. The living room is transformed into that mysterious shadowy place that you imagine after bed time as a child, once play time is over and the land of the living belongs to grown-ups. Flickering lights accompany a glitchy electronic sound track. Dancers walk purposely into the awaiting space, arms slice and torsos fold and invert themselves, enveloping in before whipping in momentum and suspending in mid air. It’s as if there is another force in the room, contorting these dancers. Sounds of crackly digital sketching are combined with live cello as the dance tidily shifts between complex duets and explosive unison.  The lights blindingly flash to full beam and... we are back in the room. The piece shunts us in and out of ‘reality’ so quickly that we barely have time to stop laughing and act serious.
The piece follows this prescribed and increasingly predictable text – dance – text linear structure as it progresses. Contrasting snippets of heavy duty dance with stripped down text, designed to enhance the everyday quality of the piece. This pedestrian element is subtly interspersed amongst the more virtuosic parts, cleverly injecting elements of playfulness and humanity. A ‘solo’ is ricocheted around the stage, bandied around like an old dress, fighting for an owner.  An intimate duet is mirrored by two couples, with meaningful eye contact and rash yet warmly placed palms are pressed onto chests and thighs; sensual yet charged with dynamic immediacy. The movement vocabulary of the dancers is impressively compelling, yet is not exempt from moments of over repetition. Luckily it sits comfortably within the comparatively short time frame of the piece.
A heavily pregnant Yael sits in the corner, playing Barthes’ dead author. The piece is something she has created, yet somewhere along the way she let it go, and now it is just playing along by itself, taking the audience on a journey of its own accord. She can but narrate this resulting detritus of everyday living.
An overarching theme of the everyday, the household, the living room, infuses itself within this piece. It is like an impressionistic visit to Ikea, complete with clocks and pot plants, old married couples and newly weds, and ‘subliminal jazz hands’ cheekily appearing in the lighting department.

7734 - Jasmin Vardimon

Jasmin Vardimon Company are currently in the midst of touring their new work, 7734, and I was lucky enough to see it on the prestigious Sadler’s Wells stage. There was a buzz of excitement in the foyer, as a few hopeful Vardimon fans eagerly awaited returns from the box office. Thankfully I wasn’t among them, but I could feel the anticipation lingering in the air. This same expectant baited-breath greeted me as I found my seat; amongst chattering college students (who did provide some hilarious running commentary, including ‘he’s jokes man... obviously on crack’ referring to one of the male dancers). Needless to say, I am a pretty big Jasmin Vardimon fan. Having been following the company since 2005, with slight avid fascination, my prior knowledge and expectations for Vardimon’s new piece were probably higher than average. The company have been performing to critical acclaim, fuelling my pre-existing fire and hunger to see the work.
7734 is a powerful piece to say the least, as an audience member you are handed all of the ingredients that make Vardimon’s work so very compelling. The movement is extremely physically demanding (and bruise inducing), the subject matter heart wrenchingly close to the bone; and the performers each finding the perfect balance between breathy, undulating movement sequences and punchy virtuosity. One thing I love about Vardimon’s choreography is the excellently timed comic relief, at moments even catching the audience out (I found myself laughing right across into a Holocaust reference). All this and they make it look so easy.
This, however brings me to the use of text in the piece, Vardimon’s handling of speech left me feeling a little uneasy. Ok, so the subject matter of perception and authority was made as haunting as it possibly could have been, amongst such images was a pile of almost naked female bodies, being ‘burnt’ by a smoke machine. So for anyone to come out of the auditorium and be completely unfazed by this, I would consider them dead inside. I was meant to feel unsettled, but it was not just the harrowing images that provided this, it was also the way the choreography was assembled. The music used was loud and mind-bending, by this I mean at times a tone akin to that of tinnitus was emitted, so it was designed to mess with our heads (the college students had great fun with that one). At certain sections, music came to a jarring halt; and the dancers, all in place and ready to go as their ‘characters’ would start a dialogue. Unfortunately, the term over-acting came to mind. The sections of pure dance set against pure dialogue was slightly jarring on my senses, not to mention my inner fanatic of the previous skill at which Vardimon had effortlessly intertwined the two. This abrupt reminder of reality had the successful result of distancing me as an audience member, meaning that I left the theatre feeling slightly affronted, having entered in heady excitement.
However, Vardimon must have realised the need to distance the audience member, and if I may be so brave to claim that this cleverly displays a theme which frequented the work, that of human memory becoming less and less evocative as it fades and travels along generations, as a kind of natural estrangement to periods of high stress.
So, all in all I would highly recommend seeing this, and for all those hardcore Vardimon fans out there, you have been warned!

Are you dancin' yet? 'Cos I'm askin'

So last night I found myself in a club. This was a) sadly a very rare occurrence of late and b) completely unplanned; the result being that I found myself surrounded by all manner of ‘grizzly ghouls from every tomb’ (this was Halloween night might I add, I’m not that harsh about people’s appearance generally), whilst being dressed down in more ways than one.
The very same day I had attended a symposium on popular dance here at the University, within which there was a paper on club dance, in particular to Drum ‘n’ Bass music. The presenter carried out her research by attending Drum ‘n’ Bass events, and studying the club cultures that were present there. This fascinated me, as when you think about dance research, you normally imagine going to a stuffy theatre, surrounded by a sea of grey heads and watching a piece of well-honed ‘dance art’, whilst getting a numb bum and crick in your neck. 
So with this fresh in my mind, I entered the club scene; pulled out a few moves, threw a few shapes, and, as I glanced around the room I realised, with this new ‘dance researcher’ hat firmly in my mindset, how much I take pleasure in seeing other people completely enjoying the moment of the dance. A little like improvisation, club dancing involves the expelling of emotion, a joyous response to catchy rhythms, sharing an experience, and yes, a little alcohol. Even the creepy guy on his own at the back of the dance floor (there’s always one) dancing a little like an amputated squid and giving everyone the eye, is having (I think) the same delight at moving his body in response(ish) to the drums and the bass; the pulsing backbones of most club anthems, in drunken exultation that this is the only place where moving in that way is socially acceptable (again, ish).
I believe the power of this type of dancing must not be underestimated, or at all taken for granted. Through acknowledging the intricacies of a kind of emotive therapy that this can offer people, is perfect grounds for it to be studied, much like any other social dance form. So I ask you this; are you dancing? Because really, I think you should be.

On choreographic style

This time, I am considering choreography, and how important (or not so) it is to have a ‘choreographic voice’. After having attended a talk by world renowned Israeli choreographer Barak Marshall, which was based on his own style of making dance; through a complex politic of traditional Yiddish hand gestures, folk music and Israeli historical taboos, something started to correspond with my current studies.  Marshall spoke about his ideals of making work on himself and then transferring this onto his dancer’s bodies. This does admittedly seem very old hat, and I personally thought we had travelled away from the time when this way of making was fashionable, and have started to understand that all dancing bodies move differently and so an exact replica of movement is impossible. However, he did also make the very valid point that having the dancers create the main movement material, which the choreographers then just ‘mould’ could have a reducing affect towards the choreographer’s ‘unique voice’ and movement style coming through.
I have always felt that having a specific ‘choreographic voice’ was not necessarily a good thing. As dance students we are encouraged to expand our movement vocabulary and experiment with different ways of making and moving, as to not get stuck in that dreaded ‘choreography rut’. However, after starting to work on an autobiographical piece (as part of our course) the focus shifted towards the understanding of our own personal choreographic style. And, I suppose once you acknowledge the inevitability of actually having a style, you then acquire the ability to move away from it (or back to it) if and when you wish. A key promoter of this kind of thinking is American choreographer Tere O’Connor. He speaks about ‘getting rid of the authorities in your brain’, or taboos if you like, when you enter the choreographic space. This works to get rid of any rebellion that  you may be feeling against your own ‘style’ or how you believe your work is perceived by the ‘authorities’, therefore creating a sense of freedom.
I think style, whatever it is, and not just choreographically either, but in a wider sense of the word, needs to be something that comes naturally, otherwise it can’t possibly be yours. And it is something that is owned and acknowledged, but therefore flexible.
It was Quentin Crisp who once said ‘If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.’

If you like it then you better put a label on it

The concept of labelling things; and I’m not talking apple stickers or luggage labels here before you ask, is basically society’s way of keeping everything neat and tidy, and in its own little box so that everyone feels a lot more comfortable living within the surrounding world. Even language, an essential part of human communication, is just a complex system of labelling. As dramaturg Ruth Little states, language evolved to describe the things that were not in immediate sight. So this semiotic link between what we see, and what this therefore means, has dispersed itself into the nooks and crannies of society; rendering the use of labelling essential, if not only to situate one thing in relation to another. I’ll give you an example; more often than not, the type of music that you like, will no doubt in some minute way influence the type of clothes you wear, and how you perceive your likeness to others, simply because by choosing ‘genre’ we immediately enter into a system of labelling.
One aspect of this that I find particularly interesting is the labelling of dance genres. I recently purchased a book that lists all of the perceived art styles, schools and movements conceivable. Ever heard of New Brutalism, Post-painterly Abstraction or Stuckism? No, me neither. The fascinating thing about this labelling (extreme labellism?! There you are, I’ve just invented a new one) is how completely different it is to dance, or, at least contemporary dance.
All Contemporary Dancers out there, ever been asked what ‘Contemporary Dance’ actually is and been at a total loss of what to say? And no, it’s not all about emotion and narrative, Arlene Phillips. My point is that the word ‘contemporary’ has been used to describe everything considered vaguely ‘modern’, since Martha Graham decided to contract and expand wearing a piece of swaddling (simplistic description to say the least, admittedly).
Ok, so there are a lot of different genres of dance, each with its own style. But to have ‘contemporary dance’ as a genre in itself, goes no way to explaining what it actually is. Whether this is a good or bad thing is up to debate. In a way it would be nice to be able to explain in layman’s terms what it is you actually do; having specific labels within the genre would help to conjure up that well needed and accurate mental image; therefore creating a more significant sense of validity. As John Berger describes; ‘It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world’. However, contemporary dance was originally about breaking away from the conventions of dance; including the then prevalent system of labelling.
So, perhaps contemporary dancers, whatever shape or form, will just have to put up with being a bunch of ambiguous genre label-escapers (contemporary labellescapism?!). This, in reflection isn’t too bad at all, and is perhaps the very reason why dancers past and present turn to ‘contemporary dance’ as a source of refuge and freedom.

First Steps

So I've done it. I've become A BLOGGER. I've finally decided to take this writing malarky seriously. As I stand on the precipice of graduatehood, facing the cavernous depths of reality, I try very hard not to be consumed by the ill fated question 'what to do now?'.

The answer for now comes in blog form.

But, before I start properly I just wanted to post some of what I consider the best bits from my website (siangoldby.moonfruit.com). All in the name of cross-posting.