Ian Abbott on Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring at The Place

Posted: May 29th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring at The Place

The Rite of Spring – reimagined by Seeta Patel, The Place, May 18

Seeta Patel Rite of Spring
The six dancers in Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

Last Summer at Tanzmesse I saw an eight-minute excerpt of Seeta Patel’s reimagining of The Rite of Spring; nine months later I’m here at The Place to see how it has grown. Patel is presenting the completed work with six dancers alongside two shorter and complimentary works that establish the relationship between western classical music and group bharatantyam choreography. Celine Lepicard ably performs Bach’s cello suite 1 and a seven-minute group bharatanatyam and contemporary dance choreographed by Patel on alumna from the National Youth Dance Company and Kadam Dance readies the eye and ear palette for what is to come.

There have been over 200 choreographic attempts at matching Stravinsky’s score since it premiered in 1913; it’s a choreographic equivalent of scaling Everest or circumnavigating the globe — there’s a psychology in a certain type of person to see if they’re able to endure, match and conquer it whilst marking their own place in dance history. (Having only seen Marie Chouinard’s version at the Attakkaalari India Biennial in 2017 I do not have Rite fatigue).

At the moment there’s at least two other versions circulating in the UK: Jeanguy Saintus’s interpretation for Phoenix Dance Theatre and Yang Liping’s version but Patel’s is the first time in 106 years that bharatanatyam has been used. As a side note, when I listen to Rite I cannot avoid thinking about how the musical thief John Williams appropriated a number of the key Stravinsky/Rite passages, so even you’ve not heard Stravinsky’s version in full, you’re likely to have heard Williams’ lift in Star Wars (The Dune Sea of Tatooine).   

With Ash Mukhurjee, Indu Panday, Kamala Devam, Moritz Zavan, Sarah Gasser and Sooraj Subramaniam as the dancers, Patel has brought together the Avengers of classical and contemporary bharatanatyam; this suite of highly skilled performers deals with and executes the choreographic complexity demanded of them with a finesse and grace that makes visual music. The score envelops the auditorium and although it is played too loud, distorting slightly, you feel it surrounding you; the music is in you as you attempt to take in all the visual information. The dancers are pin sharp, have been rehearsed exceptionally and deliver thunderous synchronised foot work; it’s one body echoed across six as they duet with the weight of history and the music. One of the most impressive aspects is how the dancers travel; they gobble up the width of the stage with ease; if you were to trace the dancers on a Strava map they’d have covered miles by the end of the work. 

The visual composition, anatomical layering and choreographic cannon is satisfying and demonstrates for the first time that bharatanatyam can be a group dance form; imagine a miniature corps de bharatanatyam. If the dancers are the Avengers then Patel is Nick Fury — the architect of this work bringing together the finest dancers from across Europe but with Patel’s ambition and skill they level up again, combining to deliver a work that marks a shift in the UK bharatanatyam ecology. This Rite of Spring is begging for a bigger stage, with double/treble the dancers and live orchestral accompaniment and could easily tour internationally for the next five years.   

Devam, Subramaniam and Mukhurjee leave the eyes tired after darting in between where we spend our attention. Patel’s composition delivers wave after wave, and it’s a relentless first half that is unforgiving in its attack. The second half wanes a little in impact as The Sacrifice demands an alternate energy and concentration but it is still a joy to watch and a welcome addition to the choreographic canon. Cyril W. Beaumont — a British book dealer, balletomane, and dance historian — saw each and every one of Nijinsky’s performances in the Ballet Russes’ 1913 London season (which included Nijinsky’s original Rite of Spring) and said: “The chief attraction for the season was to be Nijinsky, presented as a strange, exotic being who could dance like a god. His slanting eyes and his finely-chiselled lips were to be emphasized with grease-paint; his roles were to be of the most unusual type.”  

There is a relationship that warrants further exploration around new classicism and the exoticisation of how Nijinsky was written about and presented, what Patel has done with her re-imagining and how it has been written about in terms of ‘otherness’.

Dance is always presented in a context and Patel’s context needs wider acknowledgement. She is performing and touring in Not Today’s Yesterday, a contemporary solo work co-authored and choreographed with Lina Limosani; she developed in partnership with Gandini Juggling an award-winning work Sigma in which she’s a central pillar; she has co-developed The Natya Project with Shane Shambhu and Magdelene Gorringe — a training programme for younger bharatanatyam dancers in response to the lack of dancers in the profession — and she is still creating/touring her own classical evening of works. If she were male with a name like Khan, McGregor or Shechter she’d have her own choreographic centre, be heralded as a UK pioneer with regular funding to match. 


Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring

Posted: May 20th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring

Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring, The Place, May 17

Seeta Patel Rite of Spring
Sooraj Subramaniam in Seeta Patel’s Rite of Spring (photo: Joe Armitage)

In 1913, when Vaslav Nijinsky was starting to choreograph a new work by the young composer Igor Stravinsky, Serge Diaghilev hired a eurythmics student, Marie Rambert, to assist his protégé with counting the score. The new ballet was The Rite of Spring which famously premiered in Paris in May of that year. After a mere eight performances, Nijinsky’s choreography was lost for almost 70 years until Millicent Hodson painstakingly reconstructed it for the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, but since the latter half of the twentieth century Stravinsky’s celebrated score has become a rite of passage for choreographers eager to challenge the rich complexity of its musical structure. Seeta Patel is the latest to tackle the score but she is perhaps one of the first to formulate her response through the Indian classical dance form of Bharatanatyam. It’s a revelation. 

Patel is known for her exquisite solo work but she has also devoted her considerable artistic intelligence to dealing with issues of identity that affect her as an artist and Bharatanatyam as a traditional dance form, from her film with Kamala Devam, The Art of Defining Me, to her dark cultural fable created with Lina Limosani, Not Today’s Yesterday. While her work remains firmly anchored in the Bharatanatyam technique, she has also begun to explore collaborations with complementary art forms, notably in Sigma with Gandini Juggling where her mastery of both rhythm and gesture complement the mathematical precision of the jugglers. In the process she is subtly moving Bharatanatyam away from its original context to reinvent it in a contemporary idiom. This process has reached a new level of maturity in her re-imagining of The Rite of Spring; everything she has struggled to achieve has come to fruition.  

Patel approached what she calls ‘this beast of a score’ by studying Stravinsky’s rhythms with pianist Julien Kottukapilly which she then translated into a carnatic vocabulary with which her dancers could identify. This attention to a score until it becomes embodied — similar to the way Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker approaches her work — is to enter into the music by the same door as the composer; only then is it possible to deliver a response that is true to its structure. To see Patel’s choreography is to hear The Rite of Spring in a new cross-cultural perspective.

The original score is subtitled ‘Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts’, a scenario devised by Nicholas Roerich who also designed the original costumes and scenery. Patel initially follows Roerich’s outline; in the first part, she writes, ‘the excitement is palpable, the dancers still youthful and full of hope, being pushed and pulled by the energy around them.’ The energy is in the music and Patel opens up a dynamic spatial world within it by defining geometric pathways for her dancers. From the opening languorous poses that pay homage to Nijinsky’s faun she builds up the suggestion of a community waking up and setting out into the fields in a spirit of worship. Using Bharatanatyam’s vocabulary of complex rhythmical coordination punctuated by eloquent hand gestures, facial expressions and precise percussive footwork her six dancers — Ash Mukherjee, Indu Panday, Kamala Devam, Moritz Zavan, Sarah Gasser and Sooraj Subramaniam — make the intricacy of the musical textures and rhythms visible while maintaining their ritual allusions. 

Separating the two parts of the score with a brief vocalised interlude, Patel then inverts Roerich’s idea of the Chosen One as sacrificial victim; it is the community who chooses a leader to whom they cede their autonomous power. The tall, imposing Subramaniam is deified, wrapped in blood-red trappings and at the score’s final chord of sacrificial exhaustion he is the one remaining upright spiralling slowly into his trailing adornments as the community crouches behind him in his shadow. 

The setting for this re-imagining is a bare white stage with a white backdrop; the element of scenery is subsumed in Warren Letton ’s subtle washes of colour and in the luminous silk costumes and elaborate makeup of Jason Cheriyan and Anshu Arora. So closely do all the elements of this creation align with the music that it appears effortless; whatever orchestral forces Stravinsky throws at her, Patel transforms them into a field of light. 

The evening begins with Patel’s Dance Dialogues, a short choreographic conversation between six young performers trained in either Bharatanatyam or contemporary dance. The music is by Talvin Singh with live accompaniment by cellist Celine Lepicard who bridges the two choreographic works with a recital of Bach’s first cello suite. 


Gandini Juggling and Seeta Patel, Sigma

Posted: January 20th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Gandini Juggling and Seeta Patel, Sigma

Gandini Juggling and Seeta Patel, Sigma, Lilian Baylis Studio, January 15

Iconographic collage of Seeta Patel in Sigma (photo: ASH)

In Sigma, presented at Lilian Baylis Studio as part of the 2018 London International Mime Festival, Sean Gandini, artistic director of Gandini Juggling and Seeta Patel, an accomplished bharatanatyam soloist and choreographer, propose a dialogue — or flirtation as Gandini calls it — between juggling and bharatanatyam. Sigma is the second of three such dialogues Gandini has curated, the first being with classical ballet (4×4 Ephemeral Architectures) and the third, Spring, with contemporary choreography by Alexander Whitley, which will premiere at Cambridge Junction next month.

The term ‘sigma’ means ‘sum of small parts’, aptly describing the structure of Gandini’s and Patel’s dialogue that examines aspects of their respective arts from their two distinct perspectives. Clearly nothing much will result from a dialogue where perspectives are too closely aligned, and on the surface there appears to be little in common between juggling and classical Indian dance. The history of juggling suggests it has always been an artistic form on the informal edges of entertainment; while it has developed its own virtuosic routines it has eschewed a formal musical or physical framework for the improvised freedom of the street or circus. By contrast, bharatanatyam has a long history of formalized representation with an improvisational core based on a close relationship with its musicians. In formalizing such a dialogue Gandini and Patel run the risk of either framing juggling too tightly or unframing bharatanatyam, but in their irrepressible curiosity they set out to explore how the geometries and dynamics of their respective arts intersect within their common experience of space and time.

By putting the two forms on the same stage, Sigma immediately reveals a formal affinity, a double intricacy of gesture and rhythm that initially sets the dialogue alight. It is in the inordinate physical dexterity, agility and coordination of hand and eye, as well as in the use of complex musical rhythms that the two art forms thrive. Seeing Patel’s refined hand gestures against the juggling hands of Kim Huynh and Kati Ylä Hokkala and to juxtapose the complex rhythms of bouncing balls with Patel’s and Indu Panday’s intricate footwork is to appreciate both arts in a fresh light. There are notable similarities, too, in the use of improvisation (uncommon in the western classical ballet tradition) and in the dynamic tension between concentration and relaxation that allows the performers of both forms to appear at ease as they negotiate demanding routines. Perhaps one of the most interesting developments in Sigma’s dialogue, one in which both art forms find themselves in new territory, is the section ‘Tribute to London’ in which both dance and juggling are performed to the syncopated rhythms of chanted tube station names. There are also some notable disagreements between the two forms: gesture in bharatanatyam is embedded in meaning, whereas in juggling it is a function of the dynamic act. This fundamental difference renders the section in which Patel and Huynh compete in physical expressivity rather flat because there is no standard of comparison. Another disagreement is in a contrasting sense of humour. Humour in juggling is a response both to the inherent illusion and the nonchalant virtuosity of the act. In bharatanatyam humour is embedded in the story that the artist expresses. Sigma carries no story in itself — except in the ethnological, autobiographical framing — so Patel and Panday are roped into Gandini’s sense of humour that appears to be less a result of dialogue than of acquiesence.

There is an external element in Sigma that enhances its presentation: the stage setting and Guy Hoare’s atmospheric lighting. What we see as we arrive is a bare stage with two bland, institutional dividers on wheels. As the performance unfolds, so do the screens, revealing mirrors on the hidden side that reflect both the audience and the performers. In the duet between Patel and Huyhn to the aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Panday and Hokkala circle the performers with the mirrored panels, extending the sculptural forms of the choreography to which Hoare’s lighting gives a visual unity even if the full effect is evident only to those sitting in the middle of the stalls.

Out of the sum of its many components, however, Sigma fails to create a cohesive whole. The initial exploration throws up ideas like balls and keeps the dialogue afloat, but the joint dynamics fall off, and balls drop as the exchange deconstructs into its constituent soliloquys. At the end illusion peters out with a muted chorus of regrets.