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Waltzing The Blue Gods

The Place, London

16 April 2024

Reviewed by Donald Hutera

Since founding his eponymous company in Wolverhampton two decades ago, the dancer, choreographer and artistic director Jaivant Patel has slowly, steadily carved out a niche for himself as a queer south Asian artist keen to inhabit and explore the interface between cultural and kinetic traditions (particularly kathak) and contemporary issues and modes of being and moving. His latest work, a solo in two parts (or, as referred to in the free sheet, interludes), exists in a carefully considered and constructed stage world that offers a fresh,  personal and relevant spin on the symbology and mythology of his heritage.

Let's start with the setting. Upstage left stands a sturdy and yet kind of softly magical doorway fitted with glowing coloured tube lights. This is Patel's entrance and exit portal for the work's first half, entitled Aliñga - a Sanskrit word that translates as 'not a mark of anything' or 'not possessed of definite gender.' Opposite the door frame is another free-standing structure, a tall, geometric object that suggests a pylon while functioning like a shrine (complete with portraits of deities and, unless I am mistaken, a photograph of Patel's grandmother). These two objects help to signal that we are in a private, self-reflective space, uncluttered, dimly-lit and redolent with memory and feeling; it is also a place of low-key ritual or ceremony.

Initially Patel hovers in and around the doorway, shifting about -  maybe a tad too desultorily -  to a cross-cultural shuffle of pop songs (including fragments of Freddie Mercury and Queen) and Bollywood-type vocals. He eventually comes further forward, dancing (to choreography credited to Urja Desai Thakore) with a mix of quiet strength, delicacy and grace. While there are flashes of force. Patel is more of a calm than fiery or virtuosic mover. And yet there is something rapturous in his body; I felt serene watching him, not excited but nonetheless involved.

The dance leads him on to other psychological, gestural places associated with liberation. Grimacing, he mimes the breaking of shackles. Then, retrieving what looks like a small, secreted jewel box, he dons earrings and a nose ring and, in the process, seems to become lighter in spirit. He doesn't dance large, and keeps his distance from us as if on relaxed display. Although my attention occasionally drifted (I wondered, is this piece more important for him to do than for me to witness?) the connection I felt to Patel was never lost. 

it is worth noting that Alap Desai's original recorded score adopts the 14-beat time cycle of Dhamaar Taal, a rhythm associated with Shiva's nature and character. In the second half, following an interval and called Svarūpa (Sanskrit for 'one's own form' or true nature'), it is the embodiment of Krishna that comes to the fore. The door is now pink-lit, and there is live music - as well as some rudimentary movement -  from vocalist Yadav Yadavan and flautist Vijay Venkat. Sonically they are supported by tabla player Sahib Sehmbey and John Ball on santoor. Yadavan's singing is a continuous, splendidly romantic balm but it is Venkat who is Patel's intently flirtatious, sometimes tactile focus. The work's musical, physical and emotional content has waxed fluttery and free-floating. Now becomingly outfitted in blue and gold brocade, hair shiny and sleek, Patel seems to be operating in a heightened, even perfumed (I would almost swear I noticed a scent of flowers) state of femininity or, perhaps better put, gender-fluidity. It's as if his inner beauty has found a new outer form through the silent acknowledgment of a deeper queer self.