Sonia Sabri must have been filling in a lot of monitoring data forms recently. “Black African, Black Caribbean, Black British?” asks one of her dancers. “I’m from Birmingham! Which box do I tick?” Kathakbox (the title is a play on “tickbox”) is an hour-long exploration of cultural identity using Sabri’s classical Kathak style in conversation with western contemporary, urban and African dance. The aim, explains Sabri, is not to “box in” each of the styles and demarcate them by difference, but rather to find the natural meeting points and see how the superficially different forms associate.
Boxes are a major visual theme in the production. Entering the auditorium, the audience is greeted by a stunning set with a grid marked out on the stage floor and a trompe l’oeil cube formed of square drapes stretching from the centre to the corners of the stage. The seven performers (four dancers and three vocalists) begin the piece standing in grid-like formation, facing away from one another at right-angles; clever box-shaped lighting effects pick each of the dancers out in turn. As the performers try to avoid being “boxed-in” with one another they duck and dive through the defining lights, playing an elaborate game of Lines and Squares with the stage surface.
The piece explores the unexpected connections between Kathak and contemporary Hip-hop , including the close but improvised relationship between dance and music in both forms. Sabri’s musicians – beatboxer Shan Bansil, vocalist Ustad Sarvar Sabri and singer Marcina Arnold – combine rhythmic Kathak bols and classical Indian vocals with live beatboxing, R&B singing and Hindi rap. This dialogue of forms continues into the movement material : Sabri and B-boy Nathan Geering have a brief but highly entertaining dance-off in their respective styles; contemporary suspensions and shifts across the stage meld with delicate Kathak mudras, explosive body percussion and just a touch of filmi footwork.
The music and dance material alike outline points of difference, but also essential similarities. Hip-hop Theatre choreographer Jonzi D is credited as Artistic Consultant, and his collaboration is visible not only in the Hip-hop throwdowns but also in the direct and conversational relationship between performers and audience, familiar from Jonzi’s own Tag: Me vs. the City. Kathakbox explores the natural points of contact between traditional and modern forms of dance and music– the storytelling, rhythmic and musical play, and improvised elements – without descending into imitation.
The contribution of all seven artists to the finished work is visibly evident – movement phrases switch easily between fleet classical footwork, Popping, Tutting and Africanistic stamping. By associating and connecting Kathak and Hip-hop, classical and modern, East and West, Sabri devises a dialogue between forms that is at once familiar and new; and by introducing these forms to one another without allowing one to take over from the other, the piece makes a light and playful comment on cultural identity and difference. As Sabri’s own final rap puts it: “You, me, him, her, we are what we are.”
Above all, Kathakbox looks like it’s heaps of fun to perform. During the extended body percussion section, in which all seven performers slap arms, legs and torsos to produce a tub-thumping beat that gets the audience clapping and whooping along, they looked like they were enjoying themselves so much I felt like jumping up onstage to join them. Sabri herself is cute as a button and full of vibrant energy, and dancers Amayra Fuller, Suzanne Grubham and Nathan Fuller all easily engage the audience. A very complete piece, with dance, music, spoken word and set all working together to support the theme, Kathakboxis at the same time uplifting and highly enjoyable.