This year, star performer and founder of the Sona Lisa Dance Company, Sonia Chandaria Tillu, appeared in Oxford as a solo dancer, having established her own choreography and proving that alone on a stage she is able to hold her audience to a spell-binding performance of Kathak dance.  She now bills herself as “an independent artist working in dance, choreography and education.” Her formal training in the classical dance form of Kathak expands to show the influence of other dramatic forms including ballet, yoga, kalaripayattu and ballroom dancing.  Sonia notes that she particularly enjoys performing work which evokes an emotional response in her audiences.

Her performance Untagged on February 27th at Oxford’s Old Fire Station consisted of three parts.  The first section is wholly traditional, displaying all the elements of classical Kathak.  And its elegance is its over-riding quality.  In a sari of emerald green and flame orange, Sonia’s deportment begins upright and proud as she embarks on a spiritual exploration in dance. She titles this section Shakti and it explores the feminine embodied in the Hindu goddess, Devi. (Also known as Mahadevi or ‘Great Goddess‘, Devi is an all-embracing Mother Goddess first worshipped in India in Prehistoric times.  In the Vedic period, she was assimilated into the Hindu pantheon and so came to represent the female energy or Sakti (Power) of her husband Shiva.)

Incorporating movements that suggest arriving at a temple and entering into a spiritual ritual, the dance movements are supported musically by what is evidently called “ryaz”; a basic 14 beat sound cycle, repetitive undergirding in the drumbeats of the music which allow the dancer to connect to a divine energy while remaining centred – finding diverse movement while also strongly grounded in foundational material.  From an upright beginning, the dance eventually embraces low bows, prostrate obeisance and then swirling freedoms.  I found the emotional content moving between sweetness and scorn – or, rather, perhaps, assertion of the self over inhibitions.

While the sari-draped figure begins under a cool blue spotlight, the warmth of fuller light expands until the pallu of the sari, under light, takes on the shades of a shimmering rainbow, and the oranges in the silk shift and glimmer with multiple hot tones.  Always there is the return to an insistent stamping of the feet that then move into a variety of rhythmic patterns allowing the ankle bells to fully, emphatically, jingle their sounds as if speaking from some inner call to prayer.  For me the choreography and concept by Sujata Banerjee are quite perfectly representative of the classical form of this uniquely Indian art.

The second section of Untagged is called Breaking Ground – a further exploration of identity in which the dancer traces her journey from an Indian village via her years in Kenya, until she settles in the UK and understands that she is part of a multicultural identity.  The initial figure of the Mango Tree – under which a woman (her mother) might squat to prepare her chappatis – becomes the unifying motif.  Away from India, it is the abiding point of memory and the acknowledgement of her natural heritage.  Sonia dances with gestures that signify the tree as it slowly becomes rooted within herself, along with the child under its leaves and the mother performing household chores.

The tree’s presence is then depicted as Sonia plays childhood games – marbles, jump-rope, skipping, running – of her Kenyan schooldays.  And the tree’s echo remains during her adult life when she learns how “cultural baggage” can become the richest core of identity.  The musical composition for this is by Shammi Pithia, a lovely blend of instruments including sounds of a wooden flute.  I could see in the movement and hear in the music the breeze through the mango leaves!  I loved the sense of exhilaration and freedom suggested by the spinning and leaping, the flicking of fingers and the glancing eyes in teasing play.

For this section, Sonia wears a simple mustard coloured loose T shirt and wide trousers, suggesting the more western orientation towards which she travels and then arrives, to find beauty in a cultural complexity that includes the remembered beat of African drums and the natural world of the village Mango Tree with its mustard coloured fruit and gleaming leaves, her deepest anchor to identity.

Sonia has named the final section of her performance Agraha.  In this Kathak is combined with movement from flamenco to represent the fire and the zeal of Aruna Asaf Ali, a freedom fighter at the time of India’s revolt against colonial rule.  This becomes a tribute to the woman known as a “compassionate radical”.  Here, Sonia, with marching gestures and raised fists, wears a long sheer white garment, unadorned and symbolic of the cotton drape of Ghandi’s followers.  Musically, I was aware of a cello strum combined with drumbeat and an occasional gong in Bernhard Schimpelsberger’s score.

Untagged lasted an hour and a half, yet Sonia’s energies never flagged, the breathing held still and the movements – whether in face or feet – seemed endlessly varied and vibrant.  I cannot imagine the discipline she has undergone to arrive at this artistic perfection.  Having said that, however, I would have liked at least one of the sections to have included another dancer or two as in last year’s presentation.  The synchronizing of movement when other dancers are involved is part of the beauty of Indian dance – the flow and precision so perfectly executed that two or three dancers are harmoniously united as one.  Whatever, I do look forward to attending another of these fascinating dance evenings so hope Sonia will return, perhaps bringing other of her dancers with her.  This said, it should also be noted that there appeared to be a number of regular “followers” among the young audience members, and I would guess whether alone or in company this performer will always attract a full and admiring audience.

Susannah Harris-Wilson

28th February 2020