#3 aSH

Dance ( Electromechanics ) Barbican Theatre


Modern dance in the Indian tradition, a rhythmic ritual featuring the captivating otherness of a monolithic electromechanical beast.

The aSH spectacle features three participants. Virtuosa dancer Shantala Shivalingappa, master of the the Kuchipudi form, performs as the soloist. She is supported by the equally impressive percussionist Loïc Schild, who generates the music to which the dance responds. The third participant is a giant wall that somehow, incredibly, appears to be alive. A handyman sometimes appears stage right, but he serves in a crew capacity: he tames the mechanical lion.

It is remarkable how little is needed in order to create a sense of grandeur and awe. The mechanical wall dominates the stage. Throughout the performance, Shivalingappa interacts with the wall behind her, kicking and leaning against the huge sheet that covers it. And the wall responds. Through practical effects or stage trickery, the wall appears to breathe and react to the dancer and the beat of the music. Indeed, heavily clacking and whirring and wheezing, it creates some of the sound landscape itself.

There's a sense of a force behind the cover, the curtain of the wall, a sense something powerful and perhaps old, almost sinister. There is a rich symbolism to the wall. It stands tall as a stand-in for a variety of things from hectic factory or city life to institutions, or perhaps as a metaphor to society and other abstract things.

The wall turns out to be a mere scaffold, a skeleton supporting a solenoid grid. The gigantic cover sheet is made of craft paper — gift wrap, basically. When the solenoids hit the paper, they make a noise, which is then amplified by the wooden scaffolding. The result is a resonating wall. The solenoids are run on a program, there's a method to it, but for showrunner Aurélien Bory, the fun is always in the ways in which the program fails and makes mistakes.

At first, Shivalingappa wasn't too keen on the machine. Something was missing with just her and the wall. It was only when Schild joined in, bringing his understanding of both classical western music AND Indian traditional music, that Shivalingappa warmed up to the piece. Indeed the show is a perfect match of musician, dancer and machine: there is no aSH without this particular trio.

The rhythm is the key. The whole show is an exploration of space as a rhythm. The machine is rhythm embodied and organised. The rhythm awakens something in Shivalingappa, she sees her role as a vessel of sorts. Schild creates the rhythms using a variety of instruments, with low-tempo, low-key metallic drumming serving as the hypnotic baseline. There's probably some looping action going on as well.

The main performance itself is inspired by Indian dance tradition. There's a strong oriental feel to it. The dance is full of swirling circles drawn with the legs, balanced out by angular arm movements. All done in tribute to the majestic spirit behind the curtain.

Shivalingappa draws a mandala of sorts using sand or perhaps the titular ash, and her movement serves as the brush. This residual art generated by the dance process is first lifted up vertical for visual spectacle, only to be cut loose and left to overwhelm our relatively tiny dancer. When the dust settles, we see the mechanical beast for what it really is.

It all works nicely, the interaction is palpable. And yet the integration of the dance and the mechanical wall could have been even greater. The mandala effort, while compelling enough, didn't quite answer the build-up in a completely satisfactory way. It's almost like the show is missing a second dancer.

In the Q&A, showrunner Bory shared some thoughts on his artistic process. He sees himself mostly as a showmaker, a theatremaker. The choreography is all Shivalingappa, his direction takes place at a much higher level. Sculpting, writing — everything else is done as needed in order to translate ideas into the language of theatre. It's all about being specific with sounds and visuals.

Bory is fascinated by physics, theatre as the art of the physical. It's impossible to escape from physics. For Bory, the show must be made, realised concretely. The devising process is a search for experiences and impressions, that can be translated on stage. Bory is interested in exploring the interplay between matter and body and interpretation, or "handmade" work. He often begins with the concept of space. The space creates the framework, the catalyst.

The rehearsal process is re-imagined for each show. Rehearsal is specific to the artist, and this show was years in the making. aSH is very much about Shivalingappa, it's a portrait of a dancer who has dedicated her life to the art. Bory begins with a conversation: Why dance? Showmaking is about characters, figuring out the contours of people. When Bory talks with Shivalingappa, they don't talk about dance, but of energy.

For Shivalingappa, the dance in aSH is not really improvisation, but it isn't fixed choreography either. The dance is based on points of synchronisation, between which she has great freedom to move. Over time, they have identified patterns that recur and they play with or against those patterns. The show is still evolving: just for this night they explored some new crashing type music towards the end. With theatre, live performance, every night is a premiere, and an opportunity to make things new again. Her relationship with the percussions is re-established every night.

Circular patterns feature in Kuchipudi dance. They were interested in exploring the trace left by this dance, and were delighted when these beautiful designs emerged. The design for the mandala-like eye that features in the show came directly from the steps. Bory was amazed to see the mathematics hidden inside the dance.

For Shivalingappa, the physics of the piece is about conflicting energies. In Kuchipudi, the feet are strong and grounded, but the upper body is fluid and graceful. These complimentary forces are at play in the dance, with the dancer caught right in the middle.

Shivalingappa finds a spiritual type of meaning in dance, in the figure of Shiva, in what she holds as the natural contradictions of life. For her, dance is a way to explore these conflicts or contradictions. She tries to avoid fixed points, always remaining open to evolve. Life is unpredictable and one needs to be ready and creative. Dance is all about dynamics, about finding energy to move, but also about making the most out of the stillness of the world.