My sound and music
I think kathak has made me more interested in music. As part of the training you have to learn an instrument, and initially I learnt singing. I had one lesson and the teacher said “Sing the note Sa”, so I sang the note Sa, and he said
“Get out, you’ll never be a singer”, which was really quite horrific, especially as a child. So he sent me to the next room and said I’d be better off in tabla class. I really persevered at the percussive side, and now I love anything that’s percussive. In kathak you are both musician and dancer, and that has absolutely affected how I listen to music. Because of the training I had I’m much more interested not just in the melody but also in the craft of the performer, the musician. Are they really accomplished, are they really good at what they do, do they speak through what they do?
A lot of dancers respond very honestly to music, and so when the music’s speaking from the heart, from the musician, somehow the dance connects with it much more easily. I was also into Michael Jackson as a child, his physicality and his musicality, how he physicalises music, that I just find absolutely fantastic. He responds to the music, rather than dancing on the music, and there’s a big difference. That’s something I was very drawn to. So, kathak and Michael Jackson are two influences I had growing up.
In terms of who I’d like to choreograph to, I’d love to collaborate with Salif Keita, a beautiful singer from West Africa. He’s got a song called Folon, and it’s just beautiful. I like Bjork. I also love Massive Attack; I’d love to do stuff with them, especially their early stuff. Nitin Sawnhey and I have made a few collaborations together, and Nitin I love. I love his music because he’s scientific, he’s fascinated by science, but he’s also very spiritual. These two worlds are something I’m fascinated by, the spiritual has the narrative, and the science has the information. The spirituality is more about faith and trust, you don’t need it to be ‘in your face’, you just believe it. And then, in the middle, where you meet, is the human being. And so you make a choice, you either accept both or you choose one direction or the other. For me, Nitin really encompasses both. There’s something extremely spiritual about him as a performer, but he’s also extremely scientific, it’s amazing.
I did a collaboration with Steve Reich, but for me, contemporary music’s hard; I find it hard to listen to, to get into. I look at it more as an experiment, so that’s why I enjoy working with the London Sinfonietta, because for me it’s like a science lab. It’s like being in a laboratory, wearing a white coat, and thinking “Hmm, that’s interesting”, but I’m not emotionally moved. I don’t know why, I just don’t ‘get’ contemporary music; it’s just something not in me. If you put on Flamenco, if you put on Arabic music, or African music, I kind of feel where it’s coming from, the stories it’s speaking, but the disjoint-ness of contemporary music I don’t get. I don’t see the spirituality in contemporary music, I don’t feel it’s made from the heart, I feel it’s made from the brain. It’s intellectual; the brain creates the music rather than the instinct, the heart. There’s no such thing as a piece of music that you couldn’t choreograph or dance to, but there is music that I don’t want to choreograph to. To be entirely honest, when I did the piece with Steve Reich, it was music I couldn’t find a story in, and I was really struggling with that. He created the music specifically for the piece, we collaborated, and it was the first time he created music for the concept of dance. Eventually, my story became about searching for the story. In a way, I psychologically changed the whole thing because I was so frustrated that I couldn’t find a narrative in this music, that in the end I thought, “OK, your story is going to be about searching for the story”, and I never found the story. And so, even if the narrative is that I don’t know how to choreograph to this, then it becomes all about “I don’t know how to choreograph to this”. I always find a story. Because the second I put the music on, I’m responding to it, even it it’s negatively, I’m still responding to it, and that means that a dialogue is taking place. So long as I react to the music, it’s OK. It’s only problematic if I don’t react to it, then I have an issue.
When I’m tired and I need to focus, or when I can’t sleep, I listen to Indian vocal music. It’s so soothing, it creates an atmosphere. I don’t really listen to a lot of Western Classical music, although I like it. I put on stuff like Justin Timberlake, I’m kind of cheesy in that way, I like that stuff. There’s a hint of him being influenced by Michael [Jackson], with the dancing and stuff, it makes you want to groove. I like a lot of hip hop, but I tend to like just one or two songs from each person, a specific melody, or what they’re saying, I like it when it’s about themselves.
Because of my dance, I work with a lot of different cultures, people, dancers and collaborators, and the way to get to know them is to get to know what they eat and get to know the music they listen to. I’ve been listening to a lot of Arabic music recently, because my next piece is inspired by stories from the Arab world, the Muslim world. Before that, I made a piece called Bahok, with the National Ballet of China, so I was listening to a lot of Chinese music. It was kind of Chinese Opera, which was really strange! I like Tan Dun, who did the score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and we’re planning to work together in the future.
I love Japanese music, I’m a big fan of Ryuichi Sakamoto. I’m working with a Japanese Taiko drummer at the moment, and she’s incredible. I want to see her perspective of what I’m doing. Rather than going to a musician and saying, “this is what I’m doing, this is what I want you to do, this is the story, you follow”, I show them what I’m doing and then I ask, “What do you see in it?” So she, coming from a different place, has a different opinion of what I’m doing. You’re always seeing from your own perspective, but what’s interesting is when you transfer that perspective, to try and see from someone else’s.
Henryk Goreck’s Symphony No.3 is just phenomenal. Phenomenal. It starts at the Earth. You can barely hear it, it’s so bass, so low. And it just… transcends. It comes out of the ground and then starts to go to vocals, which is the angels. There’s a journey, a kind of vertical road, (which is the name of the next piece I’m creating), and this journey is very spiritual for me. As an artist, there’s a sense of a journey towards perfection, but of never quite reaching it. The piece repeats itself, but it changes a tiny bit, layer by layer. I love the sense of transition, of mutation, of it evolving. This music really reflects that journey. I feel very attached to it because that’s what happened to me. I trained in Indian Classical dance for many years, and then I went to university and discovered contemporary dance, and my classical got contaminated. Contamination is used as a negative word, but then I realised, no, I’m evolving. Even if people hate it, I’m evolving. That’s why I relate to the music.
This article first appeared in INTO magazine, November 2009.