I went to see something a little different this week.
Fusing ballet with bharatanatyam, an Indian dance form, Ex Nihilo/The Human Edge is a new contemporary dance performance by London-based company ATMA Dance. Choreographed by Artistic Director Mayuri Boonham, the dances take inspiration from sacred Indian texts, myths and modern scientific developments to explore ancient questions about the origins of the universe.
It is undoubtedly a big concept. But, for me, this only made the idea of the performance more alluring. And, considering the show has been a hot topic of conversation since it was first performed at London’s Royal Opera House in April, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
GemArts, the North East-based arts development group who organised the evening, clearly wanted to see this performance too – they have worked with Mayuri Boonham for several years and, as keen supporters of South Asian dance, had leaped at the chance to show another example of her work.
The evening took place at Newcastle College’s Performance Academy and began with a short, introductory talk by Mayuri Boonham, who lightly outlined the thinking behind the work but left some questions unanswered, inviting us to experience the show for ourselves. Moments later I was in my seat, waiting for the first dance to begin.
Ex Nihilo (from nothing) began, aptly, with a pitch-black stage, unlit bulbs hanging from the ceiling and rushing sound effects, which reminded me of driving rain or hail. They were actually audio recordings of The Large Hadron Collider by artist Bill Fontana.
At this point, the dancers made their entrance. Starting from the floor, they jerked and stretched their way to life with a series of movements symbolising the very beginning of creation. It was abstract, and slightly difficult to understand at times, but extremely controlled and expressive. The dancers responded to the changing moods of the scenes, twisted their bodies in moments of anguish and floating, light as air, in calmer sequences.
It was later revealed that the lights above the heads of the dancers were carefully arranged to resemble constellations of stars; rhythmic sections of footwork were based on numbers from the latest, largest prime number; and small hand movements had deep symbolic meanings. For example, hooked fingers were included to convey ideas about digging and erosion and embracing dancers symbolised the eternal process of living and dying.
As Ex Nihilo came to an end, the stage became very quiet and peaceful. This is the part Mayuri referred to as the Constellation Sequence – homage to the stars when the audience could reflect on the dance and get a sense of time and space.
The second performance, The Human Edge, was completely different to the first but (I must admit) much easier to follow and comprehend. Based on Sati, a Hindu goddess, Mayuri tells the story of her life as the metaphor of a star. The performance involved two dancers, representing Sati and her husband Shiva, who presented a much more sensual, emotive side to contemporary dance. It was reasonably short but very touching. Beginning with the union of the two characters, who represent opposite, balanced beings, the piece builds in tension to the point when (true to the story) Sati dramatically self-destructs and is reborn.
I left the auditorium feeling simultaneously impressed and exhausted and joined a group conversation led by Mayuri Boonham and Dr Alexander Lenz, Deputy Director of the Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology at Durham University. Taking turns to discuss the ideas behind the performances, it became clear just how big the subject was. Many of the questions raised by the scientists of India thousands of years ago still haven’t been answered, and I hadn’t fully appreciated that fact until I had seen the performance.
Each gave their views on the unknown time around the start of the universe, and, despite specialising in completely different fields, their points formed the basis of a compelling, balanced talk. Admittedly, I walked out of the auditorium with more questions than I arrived with. But I’m going to take that as a good sign.
For more information about dance performances and arts projects taking place in the North East, visit www.gemarts.org