Sadler’s Wells
London

13th April 2024

Stuart Sweeney

The Elixir Festival was a Sadler’s Wells initiative bringing together performers across the age spectrum. Their website explains, “How do we express our changing bodies and minds as we grow and age? Elixir Festival challenges perceptions around dance and age with works by iconic artists from around the world alongside inspiring performances from dancers drawn from our local communities in north and east London.” The Festival provided two weeks of performances, films and talks and the opportunity to take part in workshops to experience a new dance style and learn from inspirational artists.

Aakash Odedra + Aditi Mangaldas’ Mehek
photo Angela Grabowska

I attended Mehek, choreographed and danced by Aakash Odedra and Aditi Mangaldas, aged 38 and 64 respectively. Mehek is a remarkable work of total theatre, bringing together dance, music, stage design and lighting of the highest quality. Both dancers are leading exponents of Kathak, one of the eight major forms of Indian classical dance. Its origin is attributed to the traveling bards in ancient northern India known as Kathakar (“storyteller”), who recounted stories from the Hindu epics and mythology through dance, songs and music. I have long been deeply impressed by Kathak, a whole body experience with hands, arms, body, legs and feet all playing important roles. Perhaps the aspects that impress me most are the beautiful hand movements and the incredibly fast spins.

Aakash Odedra in Mehek
photo Angela Grabowska

Mehek is derived from the Hindi word for fragrance, the title alludes to the enduring power of memory and the essence of love itself. The work opens intriguingly with a shaft of light projecting onto a hand, down the side of the dark stage. The focus moves deeper into the stage and triangular mirrors are manipulated to project shafts of light all around the theatre in a fascinating display. As the lights slowly come up, we see that the area above the stage is filled with more glass triangles on chords and from time to time the two dancers move them around, again with shafts of light fingers winging around the theatre. The lighting designer, Fabiana Piccioli, and set designer, Tina Tzoka, have made significant and innovative contributions to the production.

We are introduced to the two dancers through stunning Kathak movement. Odedra is in his prime and the speed and fluency of his spins are breathtaking. Remarkably, Mangaldas can match him, in a slightly softer style, and their synchronisation in the ensemble sections is precise. They spend an extended time dancing around each other, so that when they do come together it has much resonance. It is hard to believe, but this is the first time that Mangaldas has performed in a duet.

Aakash Odedra + Aditi Mangaldas’ Mehek
photo Angela Grabowska

We see the relationship moving through loving and argumentative phases, but eventually they lie together on the floor and the lights dim. At this stage, three drummers come to the front of the stage, representing public opinion critical of their relationship and the couple dance in anguish, separated by the musicians explosively pummelling their double ended drums. The dancers come together in a poignant finale with the glass triangles set in motion and dust falling from the sky. Nicki Wells wrote the rich, evocative score and performs her beautiful songs to accompany the dance, along with the magnificent drummers.

The success of Odedra and Mangaldas, alongside the triumphs of Akram Khan, underlines the vital contribution that Kathak is making in the UK dance scene and far beyond – a tribute to our multicultural society.