Uttarayan, a kite festival from Gujarat in northern India, is the inspiration for Kattam Katti, a new work from Pagrav Dance Company. The flying of these kites is a highly competitive business, as some attempt to bring down other people’s kites with sharp objects on their strings. Artistic Director and choreographer Urja Desai Thakore gives us the squabbling and bickering but also the elation, and has skilfully transmuted this into a fluent blend of kathak and contemporary dance which has a winning charm.
It’s all the more ingenious in that we never see an actual kite: the performers are launching them out over our, the audience’s, heads. It is all in the expressions of the dancers, the angle of their gaze, their concentration in looking up and out, their eagerness and anticipation. The gaze drops with crestfallen looks when the kite falls and it’s in this way that the dance tells us everything we need to know about their successes and failures.
We begin with preparations for the festival. The three female dancers show us the winding of the cords to fly the kites, and the decoration of the kites themselves, with delicate hand and finger movements. Half a dozen cords are drawn across the stage by the performers and then raised, so they are caught by the light. They form a cat’s cradle, to be carefully negotiated by the performers. It’s simple but neat and appropriate to the scenario. Design is by Simon Daw, lighting by Hector Murray.
Soon we move on to getting the kites up in the air and here the tensions between our three female and one male dancers begin to break out. I couldn’t help but read the man as a bossy elder brother type with some strong-willed sisters who just weren’t prepared to put up with it. There’s a clever mix here as the actions of winding and unwinding the string and watching the kite surge higher or lower are deftly interwoven with swift kathak turns and slaps of the feet: there is just enough gesture so you know what is going on, but it doesn’t interrupt the flow of movement. The competitive nature of the game is clear: there is bickering, pushing and shoving that you would not expect to see in a purely classical dance. But there is also a real sense of glee and joyousness, which is very cheering to see after so many months of dark stages.
An interesting innovation is the way that Urja Desai Thakore uses the four musicians, whose compositions animate the work. Rather than just remain seated, and leaving the performance area to the dancers, she makes them very much part of the action. She has them enter individually and move about the stage, for example playing a flute or small drum to accompany and interact with a dancer. They even begin to join in more directly in the action as the work progresses, taking part in the wrangling over those invisible kite strings.
The interaction between musicians and dancers is always a pleasure in Indian classical dance, but this is particularly detailed and rewarding. The musicians are Gurdain Singh Rayaat, Hiren Chate, Kaviraj Singh and Praveen Pratap. The dancers are Meera Patel, Mira Salat, Saloni Saraf and Subhash Viman Gorania. The work was originally developed pre-pandemic, and all the cast have been together since the beginning. It does show in their cohesiveness and sense of community. The company are based in Milton Keynes, and all Thakore’s talented performers are trained in the UK.
Musicians and dancers are both dressed in bright earth tones of orange, red and brown, in simple unadorned robes. The female dancers wear their hair down rather than elaborately dressed. They look like an ordinary community, just the sort of people who might be out there on their rooftops enjoying the festival.
The squabbling builds up into a full confrontation between the musicians and the dancers, but peace is then restored. The final section of the work begins with movement that is pure dance. All the cast are present now. The music here is initially slow and meditative. The speed steadily increases, the turns get faster, sharper, the slapping of the bare feet against the floor is louder. There is a sense of euphoria. The dancers sometimes catch their whizzing arms against the cords crossing the stage, setting them thrumming. This section seems to have a few false endings. But when we reach the conclusion it’s a happy one where we return to the imagery of kite flying and this time everyone gets a go.
Kattam Katti means cutting through: not just a reference to chopping through someone else’s kite string but an ambition to carve something new and individual in terms of a kathak / contemporary hybrid, something that Urja Desai Thakore has succeeded in. It’s a tightly constructed, concentrated piece, running just under sixty minutes. There is light and shade, quieter moments (including some lovely singing from one of the musicians) as well as more energised sections. It’s cheering right now to see something celebratory and good-humoured, and the audience adored it. The company has plans to tour this production around the UK next year, so look out for Pagrav Dance bringing some warmth your way.