Edinburgh Mela, UK; August 30 & 31, 2014

Stuart Sweeney

Sonia Sabri in 'Ekalya'. Photo © Simon Richardson

Sonia Sabri in ‘Ekalya’.
Photo © Simon Richardson

Edinburgh Mela 2014 was a fascinating mix of new and classical music and dance from India and beyond, including fine artists such as the Kakatsitsi Master Drummers from Ghana, Qawwali Sufi devotional music by Salim Sabri (no relation to Sonia), and the Wielkopolska Bagpipers & Violinists from Poland.

Dance Base, Edinburgh’s National Dance Agency hosted the World Dance Feste tent with an eclectic mix in line with the rest of the Mela offerings. Since joining the Mela, the Dance Feste has grown each year in size and the sophistication of the technical facilities. A full tent with people standing in the aisles this year bodes well for the future of dance at this annual festival.

Curator and Director of Dance Base, Morag Deyes, introduced Sonia Sabri as one of the finest Kathak dancers in Europe and who could argue. Sabri’s 45 minutes of solos more than held the audience’s attention and I for one would have loved another hour or two. I tried to analyse how this solo performance left us wanting more. Apart from Sabri’s expertise, the Kathak dance form is surely one of the most interesting around. It is a whole body experience from toes to finger tips and on to the head, with a variety of themes and styles. To enhance our appreciation, between the dances Sabri explains the stories, gestures, rhythms and the all-important relationship between dancer and musicians.

“Ekalya” means “solo” in Sanskrit and Sabri presented three contrasting dances, illustrating different aspects of this rich dance style. “Baje” portrays Shiva angry at the wickedness of the world, destroying it and rebuilding. From the opening, Sabri seizes our attention with the sharp focus of her movement and her eyes. We see Shiva beating his drum with vigorous finger and wrist action and as the dance progresses the God alternates between fury and steely resolve. With dynamic motion, Sabri weaves gorgeous shapes, her hands mesmerising with their eloquence and suppleness.

Sonia Sabri (right) and Sarvar Sabri (left) in 'Ekalya'. Photo © Simon Richardson

Sonia Sabri (right) and Sarvar Sabri (left) in ‘Ekalya’.
Photo © Simon Richardson

“Dagar Chalat” is Kathak story telling as Krishna’s consort tries to get her own back for his prankster tricks. After making her break a pot, she gathers her friends to dress Krishna as a woman with the idea to send him into town as an object of fun. But when they have finished dressing him he is still so beautiful that all is forgiven. Sabri explains the gestures and plays the two roles as she brings the story to vivid life with her facial expressions playing a vital role in the unfolding narrative.

“Ta Nom” is a pure Kathak dance celebrating the wonder of life. We see fast spins ending in abrupt stillness, rhythmic foot stamping at lightning speed and as always the exquisite shapes and fluent arms and hands. The audience even gets a chance to join in as we learn to clap the sixteen beats, always leaving out the ninth beat – well most of us did. At the Sunday performance, Sabri had such a positive audience response she extended “Ta Nom”; the dynamic ending bringing great applause.

As mentioned earlier the interaction with the musicians is a vital part of Kathak, and Sabri’s husband, Sarvar is music director of her company. Apart from his tabla providing the framework for the excellent accompaniment, I also enjoyed the singing and harmonium of Shoma Dey, supported by Avatar Ram on taanpura, a string drone instrument.

It is fair to ask how does a critic, with experience of western dance, review a performance of Kathak? Simple. The hallmarks of fine dancing in any style are all there in Sonia Sabri’s performance: strong, centred movement; an extraordinary focus; technical virtuosity; emotional expression. If you get the chance, take the opportunity to see either her solos or her ensemble work taking Kathak into the 21st century.

“Ekalya” can be seen at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, West Kensington, London on October 11; and at the Kala Sangam Arts Centre, Bradford on October 18. This autumn, Sonia Sabri Company can also be seen in “Jugni” in Scarborough, Guildford, Liverpool and Colchester. Click here here for full details.