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Flash Review, 3-8: Mixed blood
In the diaspora with Khan and Sawhney

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2010 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- "Confluence," a collaboration between Akram Khan and Nitin Sawhney which marked the end of a two-week celebration of South Asian-influenced music and dance they also curated at Sadler's Wells, unveiled an illuminating insight into the pair's joint creative vision, capturing both its vital spark and essence. Composer, musician, and DJ Sawhney and choreographer and dancer Khan performed on stage throughout the program, presenting a melange of new work and repertory gems.

Sometimes the pair sit and discuss artistic points of view, or recount stories or situations they have been in, which are then explored through movement and music. They perform solos and duets, occasionally joined by Khan's company and Sawhney's musicians. While the two men dominate the stage with their big personalities and magnetic talents, they don't undermine the other performers and are quite happy to let them take center stage.

Khan and Sawhney invite the audience into their process, and when I caught them on November 27, I felt like I was watching them work in their studio. The tone of the performance is spontaneous, informal and often humorous but production quality is high, one act flowing smoothly into the next, a result of Khan's tight directing. Scenes from his 2008 "Bahok" and 2005 "Zero Degrees," a collaboration with Side Larbi Cherkaoui and Anthony Gormley, although excerpted out of context, sit comfortably with new material when performed again live here. Similarly, recognizable extracts from Sawhney's extensive collection of some eight studio albums and countless commissions are blended with his latest compositions.

Both men work from tradition -- Khan from Kathak and Sawhney from classical Indian music -- but push it into a multitude of inventive directions. For example, Khan's contemporary dance vocabulary is informed by the fast spins, foot stamping, and hyper mobility of the neck from Kathak, as seen in one of the spectacular opening sequences in which his company performs a series of rapid spins and rolls onto the floor in unison to thunderous percussion.

Khan's accounts of Krishna and reminiscences about his Bengali childhood, or of awkward experiences crossing through immigration are all inspired by the Kathak tradition of storytelling, adapted to the modern day, monologues about identity and culture. Sawhney's background in classical and jazz piano, flamenco and classical guitar, sitar and tabla influence the dance music, the rock, and funk that are part of his musical palette.

One of the most moving sections in "Confluence" take place when Sawhney, alone on stage with his guitar, improvises, deep in concentration. Khan appears quietly from the shadows wearing bells on his ankles and explores a sequence of spinning taken from his Kathak solo. The men fall organically into synchronisation, the music picks up in tempo, and the spinning becomes more and more frenzied, until Khan literally appears to ricochet from one end of the stage to the other. Another high point revealing a symbiotic relationship between sound and dance occurs when Khan improvises with drummer Taalis in a raga of beats and rhythms, counted out with feet, hands and voices. The speed and accuracy with which both deliver their counts is spellbinding.

Classical Indian singer Nicki Wells contributes moments of incredible stillness and mystical calm, projecting her sweet voice into high-pitched cascades of sound. Her accompanying musicians, placed upstage behind a semi-transparent gauze screen lit to alternately reveal and conceal them, combine with the visual landscape of trance-like images, colors and shapes projected onto a screen to transport us further into a spiritual nirvana, a confusion of sensory pleasures.

"Confluence" reveals Khan at his best, where his artistic integrity, passion and engagement with the world around him is undiluted. But more importantly the work speaks about the cultural diversity and creativity of both men, with which they are able to embrace the new with as much enthusiasm and commitment as the old. With optimism and innovation they have used their diasporic locations as an incredible source of inspiration to create truly cosmopolitan art.


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