Dancer Sonia Sabri tells Terry Grimley about her latest venture.
Few people can have been more deeply affected by the closure of the MAC for redevelopment than dancer and choreographer Sonia Sabri.
Since she first walked through its doors at the of eight, she has regarded it as a creative home-from-home, first through her apprenticeship with the great kathak dancer Nahid Siddiqui and then through her own developing career as an internationally recognised performer. But life goes on and she has been developing a number of new relationships in the course of creating and touring her current solo show, Parallels.
“I feel a bit displaced because the classes are now more spread out,” she says. “MAC is a place where people could walk in and find there’s stuff going on. Now we have to do our own publicity and marketing and get the word out there.
“It was unofficial but I was like an artist in residence. Since childhood it’s been there, and you get so dependent and you know nothing else.
“I’m definitely missing having a rehearsal space and a creative hub. Unlike some other venues, you don’t step into MAC and think ‘Oh, I’m not supposed to be here’ – you could be from any cultural background and sit and have a chat and sometimes come across work that you wouldn’t necessarily go out and seek.”
At the moment, her company office has moved the short distance to the Dance Workshop in Moseley, where she has also been rehearsing.
“There’s a nice studio there for small work. We’re doing a lot there and we’ve been partnering Alderbrook School in Solihull, who have lent us some space and we’ve created some work for their students. I’ve been doing some work for The Drum, as well. It’s been interesting, let’s say – it’s also opened up doors.”
Parallels, which comes to The Drum on July 15, is a solo show with three live musicians, including Sonia’s husband and regular collaborator, tabla player Sarvar Sabri. A collection of short pieces including work by choreographers Shobana Jeyasingh and Lisa Tirun, it continues Sonia’s exploration of blending kathak and contemporary influences, though here there is a split between the urban first half and a more classical second.
“We wanted to create a show that was about demonstrating different facets of kathak,” she says. “So many people think they know what Indian dance is and they know what kathak is. It can work against one’s cultural palette.
“It’s about showing how far we can push the boundaries of the form because it does derive from about 500 years ago and it does have a cultural environment, but there is space for an individual to grow within the art form.
“Shobana Jeyasingh comes from another classical tradition but her work is no longer recognisable as bharatanatyam. Then we worked with Lisa Tirun who is from a classical background but uses a more balletic style. She also has a contemporary background.”
Kathak takes its movement from everyday life and, despite its ancient tradition, Sonia points out that in India it is still easy to refer to its roots.
“India is still 80 per cent rural, so people are aware of village life and things like how women behave in front of men – you have these gestures with the veil – and how people work in the fields. I wouldn’t see anything equivalent here unless I went to Herefordshire but, even there, they have tractors. In India, it’s still like going into a timewarp.
“Because kathak is based on the way that people behave, we’re still using the movement vocabulary that people used 50 or 100 years ago. We’ve said ‘why can’t we use a movement language that comes from the city?’ What do they do on Broad Street – for example, texting, putting hands in the back pocket. That copying of gestures has been kathakised, if I can put it like that, which very much reflects the way we live today.”
In the second half of the show, Sonia’s own choreography has been matched to some very ancient music passed down through an oral tradition.
“We’ve created three different moods using compositions that use syllables in the Sufi tradition, which means anyone can sing it. You might think Sufi is very far removed, but the most globalised syllable is ‘la’. If you don’t know the words to a song, you ‘la-la’ it.”
The urbanised element of the show helps attract a younger audience, but once they come, they prove receptive to the more classical pieces, Sonia says.
“It appeals to young people more than if you go and say ‘this is kathak’. We’ve really changed our audience make-up. They come and even though they may not have heard of kathak, they see the classical half and then they prefer that and they ask to be put on the mailing list. But if I was trying to sell a classical show, I would not get that audience.”
Parallels continues in the UK and abroad until March, then Sonia is planning research and development for an ambitious project to connect kathak and hip hop. “We will be working with spoken-word artists and beat-boxing.
We have a tradition called ‘kavitt’, which means to recite words to a groove, equivalent to rap. It’s not about fusing kathak and hip hop, it’s finding a meeting point where we can create original work and an organic movement vocabulary. It’s going to be a huge challenge.”
* Sonia Sabri presents Parallels at The Drum, Aston on July 15 at 7.30pm (Box office: 0121 333 2400).