Sonia Sabri Company first stepped onto Live & Local stages way back in 2015 and are highly regarded both nationally and internationally for presenting Kathak dance in a contemporary context while maintaining the integrity of the art form.
For those who are new to this particular style of dance, Kathak is a versatile and accessible artform originally from the northern parts of the Indian sub-continent. The dance is multi-faceted in that its highly percussive, lyrical and fluid with a rhythmic language of Indian beat-box. Kathak makes use of mime, gesture, physical theatre, and facial expressions to illustrate and explore stories. Company co-founder, Sonia Sabri, explains that this naturalistic dance style is a ‘classical form like ballet’, and that ‘it takes several years of formal training to become an accomplished artist’.
Kathak is about the human experience which ensures that audiences of all ages, from young children to adults, are able to engage with it. Sonia herself is the perfect example of this as she first discovered the art form by accident at around 6 years of age.
‘Dad took me to the mac (Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham) to enter another dance class which my school friend used to go to, but we got to the studio fairly early and the Kathak class was on so my Dad suggested rather than waiting around, we should have a go at it. That studio door was the door to my destiny.’
Although it took Sonia a bit of time to build up the confidence to simply step into the class every week, she had undoubtedly fallen in love with Kathak.
The name ‘Kathak’ comes from the ancient language of Vedic Sanskrit and literally means ‘storyteller’. As its etymology suggests, the dance form is pretty ancient itself, having been in existence since at least 400BC and emerged as a form of storytelling. It began as a folkloric tradition to entertain the local community and village people and through which kept folk tales, mythological stories and teachings of human values alive. The stories were enhanced with movement and gesture, percussion and song, elements that remain crucial parts of the Sonia Sabri Company performances. The storytelling / expressive element is about sharing either lived experiences, or an escape into a fantasy world. The themes are based on our everyday emotions – love, laughter, sadness, disgust, surprise etc. Kathak enables the audience to feel deeper, query, transcend.
Each of Sonia Sabri Company’s productions are very different, based on what they wish to explore. However, in general, as an artistic director and a performer, Sonia’s aim is for audiences to experience a feeling of being alive – celebrating life and the world around them, and embracing the highs and lows one may experience in their lifetimes. To assist in achieving this aim, Sonia draws inspiration from nature and the everyday.
‘I watch trees in the wind, the birds in flight and feeding, the drops of rain etc. Stories, movement, music, choreography is all around and always present.’
As a creative form, Kathak has adapted and evolved over the years. In the 13th century during the Mughal Empire in India, Kathak transformed into a secular and refined artform through the influence of the Mughal and Persian aesthetics including the music, style of movement, costume, and the overall presentation. What started out as a folkloric tradition sharing stories under Banyan trees, village spaces later came into the majestic courts, and then to today’s proscenium stage, alternative spaces and the digital screen.
While the technical elements of the dance are about sharing the artist’s virtuosic skills such as presenting fast spins, percussive footwork, intricate and complex movement of the body using the fine details of hands and torso etc., the core element of Kathak is to amplify the human experience. Sonia explains that it’s not dissimilar to flamenco dancing: ‘its similar because the Kathak travellers from India ended up in Spain and there was a unique collaboration of the native Spanish folk dance and kathak. So, flamenco is a product of that.’
Kashak dancer, Aakanksha Rawat has previously toured as part of the Sonia Sabri Company and loves taking Kathak dancing to rural audiences. She is always humbled by how appreciative the audience members are, many of whom have never come across the dance form or been to a big theatre. She also notes that even the children understand the effort made by the company and that their enthusiasm and excitement really inspires the performers. She says:
‘My experience of rural touring has been very warm and welcoming. Being able to bring that genuine joy in their faces makes me feel extremely happy and proud as a performer.’
The company regularly receive positive comments from audience members. During the tour of their family show Same, Same…But Different, one that really stood out for Aakanksha occurred at the South Bank Centre when one of the children in the audience shouted out, ‘Mum – they are dancing cushions!’ Aakanksha says this is one of the most creative descriptions she has heard! She also enjoys running workshops in schools, another place where she has received some reall\y warm responses, with the children coming up to hug them and thank them for the workshop. In some schools, where they did more than one workshop, teachers told them how the children were repeating phrases from the show and showing other classmates what they had learnt in the workshops.
For Aakanksha, the lockdown has been a chance to practice and focus even more on herself and her technique – it has given her an opportunity to have a deeper analysis of her body and movement as well as ways she can improve her dance further. Aakanksha has carried on with her dance classes by moving them online and feels fortunate that she has been able to dress up and perform online to an intimate audience of her fellow classmates and family members.
She has also been doing more body conditioning like yoga and workouts to help improve her strength and flexibility: ‘I tried to give myself little goals like improving my footwork sound and technique, improving my core, being able to do a headstand, pushing myself for a handstand, improving my stamina etc…’ Dancing in a smaller space has been a positive challenge and Aakanksha has perfected her ability to manoeuvre her movements using a smaller space without compromising the quality. Overall, all this has really made her appreciate how adaptable this beautiful art form really is.
You can view videos of the following Sonia Sabri Company performances online via the following links: