[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/62487?ns=guardian&pageName=Play+%2F+Southern+Comfort+%7C+Dance+review%3AArticle%3A1310054&ch=Stage&c3=Guardian&c4=Dance%2CFestivals+%28Culture%29%2CCulture+section&c6=Judith+Mackrell&c7=09-Nov-25&c8=1310054&c9=Article&c10=Review&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2FDance[/img]Lilian Bayliss, London
If the Svapnagata festival is all about rethinking Indian dance and music, this double bill of duets shows what can happen when India converses and collides with other cultures.
Play is the creation of Kuchipudi soloist Shantala Shivalingappa and Flemish-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui – two very different performers who find a mostly loving exchange between their styles. At first Cherkaoui seems hypnotised by the vivid articulation of Shivalingappa's dancing. He copies her gestures as her articulate hands summon images of Krishna, peacocks and gardens. But Cherkaoui's imagination dismantles this classical union into a more surreal conversation. He prowls around Shivalingappa on his hands and knees, his fluid, simian moves lapping at her contained grace; the two dancers slip masks over their heads to become jerky marionettes, a pair of ancient creatures scolding and consoling each other.
Some of the ways in which they test their boundaries look unwieldy – there's one section where Shivalingappa rides on Cherkaoui's shoulders playing a sitar. But this is billed as a work in progress, and the unforced virtuosity of the dancers is never less than fascinating.
In Southern Comfort, Shanell Winlock (a member of Akram Khan's company) is paired with South African dancer-choreographer Gregory Maqoma, for a duet of competing wills. Winlock is a dynamo of contentiousness and it is she who seems in control of the dancing: flurries of muscular whipping turns and darting, directional jumps. But while instructing Maqoma how to partner her, she simultaneously delivers a sharp and entertaining battery of complaints to everyone else on stage. She is comically irritated by the three musicians, who play the accompanying Afro-Indian score, instructing them not to invade her space, and mocking the cellist's inadequate vibrato. She is even more infuriated by Maqoma's inability to keep pace – sniping ruthlessly at his mistakes: "I meant the other right leg."
At first Maqoma, who is almost double Winlock's size, submits to her bossiness. But the comedy turns brutal when he turns on her, maddened into a scarily convincing assault that leaves her crumpled on the floor.
The idea of using performing relationships as a mirror for life isn't new, but what's clever about Southern Comfort is its pacing. The dance and drama are shuffled at such speeds that the interaction of choreography and sexual power play is always surprising – it's our own expectations along with those of the characters that are being confounded.
The festival continues until Sunday. Box office: 080 412 4300.
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Guardian: Play / Southern Comfort | Dance review
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