THE SHOW HAS JUST FINISHED at Chennai’s Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall on a Sunday evening in early September. The lights have come down and the audience has got to its feet—but not to leave. They’re not ready to return to the streets outside, to the waiting cars, the honks and the chatter, to the rain that had begun cooling the air while their attention was on the stage. They clap and cheer, willing the performers back for another bow. “No one gets a standing ovation in Chennai,” says a woman in front of me, as surprised by her own enthusiasm as she is by the audience’s. “Bangalore, Kolkata, okay. But Chennai? It just doesn’t happen here!”
Well, it just happened here. The performance was by Akram Khan Company, and it marked both the last Chennai date of the Park’s New Festival before its India-wide tour, and the first night of the British Council’s Impulse season of UK contemporary dance, which runs through to early 2013. For both seasons, Akram Khan is a big name, a dancer-choreographer who has been garlanded with awards over the last decade, who has worked with such diverse figures as French film actress Juliette Binoche and Australian pop princess Kylie Minogue, and most recently choreographed a section of the opening ceremony for the London Olympics.
Born in London to Bangladeshi parents, Khan trained in kathak as a child and in contemporary dance as an adult—a dual dance heritage that was exactly mirrored in the two halves of his Chennai programme. Before the interval, he performed three kathak solos—classical kathak, complete with ghungroos, angrakha and churidar outfit, and dancing that divided readily into established modes of narrative, expressive, formal. And he was very good. He has a strong technique, his spins whiplash but are secure, his gestures are fluid but never fuzzy. His footwork slips easily into the ‘groove’ so that you begin intuitively to sense the correspondences between the articulations of the dancer’s feet (heel, toes, arch, ball, sole, sides) and the tabla player’s hands (palm, cup, tips, pads, edges). And he has a commanding stage presence, even—perhaps especially—when motionless. If the heightened lighting and the use of cello and western percussion imparted a lightly ‘modern’ inflection to the show, this was nevertheless clear-cut kathak. But Chennai, a bastion of classical dance, knows kathak—this was not what made the audience lose its cool.