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The Solitary Discourse

An Interview with Sonia Sabri

by Shezad Khalil

November 7, 2009 -- Birmingham, England

Founded in 2002, the Sonia Sabri Company endeavours to present the North Indian classical dance style of Kathak as a progressive art discipline. Artistic Director, choreographer and dancer Sonia Sabri supposes that the creative intentions behind her modernization of Kathak are rooted in her belief that society is constantly changing and evolving. As a result of these alterations, Kathak must also advance in its grammar and vocabulary. Sabri has been responsible for the creation of numerous dance constructions that have comprised of both ensemble as well as solo compositions. In the following interview, Sabri discusses one aspect of her “contemporization” of Kathak -- the significance of solo arrangements.

Why is solo work significant within “conventional” Kathak, within the contemporary world and within your own work?

Traditionally, Kathak is a style of expression that is exhibited as that of a “one-person” show including dance, vocals (song and text), the playing of a musical instrument, mime and acting. During the time of the British Raj, the dance aspect of the form became the focal point; that is it took on more of a prominent role and this has remained so.

Personally, I feel that to observe and partake in a solo dance form entails experiences of intimacy. The appreciation of solo work is culture specific. For instance in the contemporary western world, it is contemporary dance that is highly favoured and so solo work is perhaps devalued. However, in the case of ballet which does incorporate elements of solo work there is a definitive audience for this art form as well as an appreciation because that is part of the “recognized” repertoire. Furthermore, ballet’s history also celebrates solo motifs, which in turn gives the form the status of the performative mode.

In the case of Kathak, it is an ensemble arrangement that is greatly favoured more within Britain, more so than a structure danced by a solo artist. This is because group work connects itself enormously to the “contemporary.”

The solo artist whose discourse centres on Kathak displays skills of technical brilliance and emotional depth. For example, the Kathak dancer possesses the quality to transcend the audience into a different place through the means of escapism from the real world as well as being able to exhibit and appreciate the beauty of life given by God. This celebration of the gifted person -- the artist -- is associated as a gift from God and the skills that the solo Kathak performer illustrates is also to some extent blessings from the Divine. I mention the importance of the spiritual connection between the dancer and the Creator as the daily lives of many people of the Indian sub-continent are embedded within the religious and devout values of faith. Even though there is a belief in God at the same time there is a continual search for further experiences that permit the individual to celebrate and immerse oneself in that belief, that is to say, to be in close proximity and intimacy with the Divine. This search, this desire is displayed through numerous means, ways but primarily through the disciplines of both dance and music. Dance has become the medium through which an audience can encounter something greater than themselves and that which has a spiritual as well as an emotional encounter.

Thus, the genre of solo Kathak has been shaped through the complexities and technical abilities of the dance form. When the solo artist demonstrates these highly intricate and specialized skills, he or she is praised and seen as being blessed and gifted by the Creator.  The solo artist is able to provide an indescribable language, a personal expression and opens the possibilities of reaching and sensing the Creator.

This sense of a heightened experience of which some believe to be spiritual and some a correlation with God is not as easily achieved by an ensemble of performers as the personal connection with the one dancer is lost. By engaging with the solo artist on stage, the audience forms a more intimate relationship with the performer because the spectator’s entire focus is on this one person. Kathak is also a style of performance that permits the solo artist to make direct eye contact, in turn helping the observer to be enticed with what is occurring whereas group work diverts that attention to other matters such as the spatial arrangements of the dance. In South Asian culture and I think even further east, this is why greater value and respect is given to the solo artist.

For me the most worrying concern is that the significance of solo work in the contemporary world seems to be diminishing. This is the result of several factors. For instance, for programmers such as venue organizers and management teams, solo dance can be seen to be old fashioned and less engaging for audiences. It can also appear to exclude spectacles and be too expensive to see just a single dancer exhibit his or her compositional pieces. And therefore because the programmers do not offer this type of work to audiences, the observers become less familiar, uninformed and ignorant with the art of solo dance.

To create an engaging solo dance one needs a tremendously talented dancer and performer (these are two different things) to work with. In addition, a choreographer needs to have the “eye” as well as the skills to compose a visually, if not emotionally compelling work.

There are far greater possibilities for crafting for instance a spectacle when there are more dancers. The reason for this is that there is more visual information for the spectator such as the number of bodies whose shapes are also varied; they move differently from one another; they can position themselves in different areas of the performance space and so forth. This immediately creates a superficial “variety” for the onlooker who in turn does not have to work as hard as he or she may do whilst observing a solo composition. I think because of these fundamental reasons -- and I have only named a few -- the curiosity and passion to develop the art of solo work has become sidelined.                                              

I wish to keep the art of solo dance “alive” within the classical and contemporary idiom of my work. I want to explore the possibilities that lie within these two aesthetics from cultural, philosophical, personal, emotional as well as abstract references. Within my realm of Kathak I am constantly immersed in training choreographers and dancers to perform and construct solo work.

How are each of your solo compositions constructed? Do they follow a specific pattern or is each composition created differently?

Each composition is different as this largely depends as to whether I have a thought for a piece or not; the subject matter, the topic or even a piece of music.  The inspiration mainly depends on whether the construction is abstract or thematic, expressional or technical or within the classical or contemporary idiom. If I do not have a preconceived conception then I try to collect or become open to different sources of stimuli: music, text, film, a painting, watching a leaf in the wind… anything really!

If I have an idea for a starting point, I will improvise around this thought for many hours, even weeks and very often throughout this improvisational process it becomes clear if there is scope for the experimental motifs to be developed into a solo or ensemble piece. However, at other times I have a gut feeling as to whether to create a solo composition.

How do your solo dance constructions take into consideration the needs of the spectator, particularly during the rehearsal process?

It is really a combination of what I want the spectator to see or not see, and feel and not feel. When I construct each piece, each moment needs to have an aim and an objective. For example, if I do not wish the spectator to see something, I question “Why not?” or “Why do the movement phrase at all?” and even “What function does it serve if any?” For instance, sometimes as part of a composition I may decide to present a movement phrase which is supposed to be portrayed in the direction of the audience, but I decide to represent it from a different angle, say my back facing the spectator. The phrase could also be repeated many times during the course of the work of art. It is only on its final fabrication that it may be presented facing the direction of the observer.

The familiarity of the movement expression builds a relationship between the audience and the dancer, and furthermore, the piece as well as the dance phrase could function as a climax to the piece. Of course this can be enhanced with music, with other movement phrases which produces an ample contrast to the motif.

I am always conscious of the spectator and sometimes I will step out of my creative mode and watch what I have conjured in my mind’s eye. I also video my creative processes too. Furthermore, I invite personal friends of mine mostly from non-artistic backgrounds to give feedback during this experimental process. If it doesn’t work for them then it’s probably not going to work for the “majority” as the audience is not always made up of informed dance goers.

How do you evaluate your solo compositions during the rehearsal stage, and during and after the performance?

I watch video recordings of the work throughout the rehearsal process and after the performance as well. I discuss the work with those familiar and not so familiar with my compositions. If there is a general consensus about a particular aspect of the work then I may review and reconsider my creative options to improve the work.

In any evaluation of my work, I tend to heavily focus on the utilization of my dynamic range, the variation in my choreography, the high and low points, the employment of complementary and contrasting moments, the quality of the movements, the spatial design, a justification of why certain phrases and segments of movement of the dance happen at particular points in the piece. To illustrate --  can a section of the dance structure be placed elsewhere or repeated or does it work as it is?  Does the overall piece achieve my basic aims that I set out at the start of making?

These processes of self-appraisal are of significant value to me as a choreographer and dancer as I see the procedure of evaluation as a crucial part of the creative process, one that can only enhance my performative work.

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