Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui/Shantala Shivalingappa, Lilian Baylis Studio, London
Akram Khan/Nitin Sawhney, Sadler's Wells, London

British Asian duo round off innovative Indian treat

What we need, said the song, is "a great big melting pot". At the time Blue Mink's record was in the charts, it came across as well-intentioned, hopeless optimism.

Now the world has changed, and the possibility of melting-pot culture has grown both closer and more problematic. Yet it was certainly the underlying message of Sadler's Wells' first-ever festival of Indian music and dance held in the main theatre and the Lilian Baylis Studio next door. And who better placed to present that argument than Nitin Sawhney and Akram Khan, both second-generation British Asians, both lauded internationally for their work.

One is a prolific DJ, musician, producer and composer, with 40 film scores to his name and more honorary doctorates than a man could ever want or need. The other is a prolific dancer and choreographer, once a kathak prodigy, now a canny supplier of ethnic cred to the likes of Kylie.

It was a bright idea to ask these two to curate the season. They know the field and their choices were lively. Three of India's classical dance forms got evenings to themselves (kathak and bharata natyam do get covered in the UK, but kuchipudi?). Classical carnatic music was grandly represented. There was a three-way fusion as jazz sax and an Indian band went to town on Elgar and Philip Glass.

And there were even more unlikely experiments. On Tuesday night, while Anoushka Shankar was entrancing the main house with her sitar, the equally packed Lilian Baylis Studio housed a first performance by the Flemish-Moroccan contemporary dance chameleon Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and the Paris-based classicist Shantala Shivalingappa. It was the late Pina Bausch who suggested the two get together. Even she may have been surprised by the lyrical result.

Their "work in progress", Play, begins with a game of chess, as the pair, cross-legged on the floor, rapidly wipe each other's pieces off the board to the tension-ratcheting music of a fingernail on drumskin, and the pluck of an Asian folk-harp. It could be a scene from a Satyajit Ray film – at once both taut and relaxed, ancient and modern. With a single chess piece remaining to each, a fierce flirtation begins – part-combative, part-romantic, a knowing exchange of manners and modes. Cherkaoui is clearly a quick study, and mimics the splayed knees and slapped, rhythmic feet of kuchipudi with some style, though he can't match Shivalingappa's glossy elegance. Even dressed alike, in trousers gathered at the ankle, the two appear to come from different planets.

Cherkaoui is more himself when he flips into hip hop mode, tumbling softly, bouncing low, and allowing his foot to examine the contours of his own forehead – he's that bendy. A long, meandering song from Shivalingappa demands a printed translation. The lyrics are clearly telling a story and it would have been nice to know what it was. For "work in progress", read "all done in a bit of a rush".

No translation was required for Sadler's Wells' big closing event, Confluence, in which the curators themselves, Nitin Sawhney and Akram Khan, delivered a joint resumé of their "pursuit of creative identity" – ie, where they've come from and where they are now. On paper, it looked ambitious, but it turned out to be far from the promised premiere. It was, in fact, a string of clips from previous successes: a comic skit from Khan's last piece bahok, on the absurdities of immigration control; another bit from bahok where a catatonic girl proves a liability (funny, up to a point). Khan, with Sawhney by his side, reprised his own role in his best work zero degrees: a spoken account, complete with hesitations, fumblings, and deviations, of an incident Khan once witnessed on a train. It's delivered snappily, but loses impact cut from its context.

Musically, the show is equally parsimonious, despite buckets of talent on stage. The sound Sawhney presents (of many he could have chosen) is easy-on-the-ear, especially seductive when it draws on the kulfi-sweet Asian-style vocals of young Nicki Wells, a bright blonde spot on the platform. Sawhney's guitar-playing is attractive too, with its light flamenco overlay. But essentially, this all sounds like accompaniment to a main event that doesn't transpire. Not quite true: it does, briefly, when Khan and a tabla player toss off some traditional kathak call-and-response. Here, at last, is the substance, excitement and rigour that somehow get lost in that melting pot.

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