DANCE / Chemistry across cultures: Judith Mackrell on the 'Vivarta' season

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The Independent Culture
IN THE first few bars of Atul Desai's music for Atah Kim - created by the Indian choreographer Kumudini Lakhia in 1981 - what sound like traditional Indian rhythms and cadences are mixed with a kind of Cageian electronic score. And in the dance itself Lakhia reveals an unmistakably modernist sensibility.

Originally trained in strict Kathak, Lakhia has separated the form's decorative and rhythmically intense movements into their basic components. She has also converted Kathak from a solo to a group dance so that these elements can be reorganised into starker and more spacious configurations around several bodies. Thus a simple stamped rhythm will be passed in rapid canon down a line of seven dancers to create a shocking whiplash of sound. A single spinning dancer will galvanise the rest into a circle of whirling bodies.

In her earlier piece Dhabkar (1973) you see how Lakhia arrived at this austerity. The five women dancers are dressed with more traditional glamour, touches of jewellery and colour. The piece also concludes with the dancers performing much more decorative and detailed movement. Yet it opens with a very calm, very beautiful deconstruction of the style, where each dancer executes a sequence of simple, undulating arm gestures which gradually build up into circles of the torso and then whole body movements.

This no-frills abstraction is obviously close to a certain line of development in Western dance, yet there are elements in Lakhia's work that remain strongly (even unsettlingly) Asian. The dancers use their faces in ways that no Western dancer could or would - making a play of arch, sweet and darting glances which traditionally decorate so much Indian dance.

By contrast the soloist and choreographer Ranjabati Sircar uses an old story from the Mahabharata but tells it in a manner curiously close to current Western dance. While she deploys many of the gestures and facial expressions of Indian mime her dancing reaches back to the simpler disciplines of yoga and the martial arts. In the grounded simplicity of her movements, Sircar also discovers an extraordinarily eloquent range of expression. At the story's climax, where the hero watches the River Ganga spread across India, her body marvellously conveys not only the watcher's quaking terror but also the grandeur and tumult of an element in full flood.

Season continues at The Place, London WC1 (071-387 0031).