The exploration of any dance system is something that is quite unique and personal to the dancer. For numerous creatives, discovering novel ways of expressing their art remains central to their practice. Such significant moments of revelation, self-discovery, self-expression and self-development are in fact just some of the chief ingredients of the work of many dancer-choreographers including the constructions of the artist Sonia Sabri.
This article seeks to increase an awareness of Sabri’s presence in the contemporary dance world, and to enlighten the non-South Asian dance specialist and reader about this performer’s dance vernacular and creative thoughts. In addition, what follows is also based in part of my longstanding fascination with the ways in which her work engages with present-day culture and identity politics—also a key focus of my own research on the South Asian woman and dance—and partly based on a recent interview that I had with her.
Sabri is a Birmingham-based second-generation British South Asian woman with a grounding in a variety of performance and musical-centred dialects. One of these includes a training in the classical discipline of Kathak; a dance mode that originates from Northern India whereby the term ‘Kathak’ comes from the Sanskrit ‘Katha’, meaning story. Kathakars were storytellers that travelled around India entertaining communities with tales about the gods and goddesses. From the age of eight, Sabri began her training in this art form under the direction and guidance of her respected teacher Nahid Siddiqui. At seventeen, she gave her two-hour long debut performance in Lahore and Karachi, in Pakistan, and then in Birmingham.
Wanting to be taken more seriously and wishing to explore dance further she set up her own company in 2002. One reason for doing this was because she wanted to experiment with the rudiments of the classical form and take it in a different direction. This is not to say that she wanted to completely abolish the standardisations of the Kathak language. Instead, she was intrigued by what she herself could do to the method without altering its essence. It is then through this investigative process that she has been able to create her own unique and postmodern dance style known as ‘Urban Kathak’—a dialect that is inspired by her own narrative and those of others.
One such experience that she has been able to explore has been the role and position of the South Asian woman within contemporary Britain. This is particularly important to her because she believes that the female subject can and is permitted to exist outside the parameters of tradition. She says that ‘one can be a South Asian woman and still take on the role of a choreographer and produce great work. Being positioned inside that creative and experimental space will in turn help change that landscape for women of having to solely abide by the rules of convention.’ She adds that this is because ‘both my art and my roles push those boundaries that are associated with customs and practices that are positioned within the past and perhaps seen as something quite static. For me, these need renovation.’ This is so that the dance language can communicate to both the new and upcoming generation of dancers and audiences alike.
This shift from the old to the new can be seen in her repertoire of work: Jugni (2014), meaning female firefly, is partially inspired by the personal stories of women from all over the UK and is a celebration of womanhood; Nu Body (2017), a composition that centres on how there is still work to be done for those women and girls that continue to experience obstacles and barriers; and Virago (2018), a piece that explores the idea of female existence through perceptions and misconceptions of woman and gender. It is important to note that her work also examines other aspects of contemporary life and events that are positioned outside the notions of the female gender.
Sabri’s role as a South Asian woman and her aesthetic are explored further in her current venture. She is involved in a project as one of the leading Associate Choreographers for Wondrous Stories: a large-scale production conceived and directed by Artistic Director Kevin Finnan of the dance-circus company Motionhouse. The work will open the Birmingham 2022 Festival, a six month cultural celebration of creativity in the West Midlands and will sit alongside the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. This is a spectacle about stories past, present and future and will feature over three hundred non-professionally trained dancers. Sabri explains that it was Finnan that initially approached her to get involved in this task. He was aware of her repertoire and performative achievements but was more importantly interested in two things that she could bring to Wondrous Stories.
First, he was intrigued by her dance vocabulary and distinct style—Urban Kathak—and wanted to incorporate some of her syntax and/or the influence of her idiom into his work. This would then add another dimension to the existing circus and acrobatic-based language that he is known for. However, for Sabri, it was much more than just this. She explains that by working with the dancers on this assignment and through the use and influence of her dance vocabularies ‘it really is no longer about choosing either this (Kathak, Indian folk dance) or that (Western) form of expression. But, more importantly, it’s about bringing the dance narrative up to date.’ What can be understood by this is that we are now in a position to accept that the space of the West is composed of such disparate linguistic and cultural systems and as a result discussions about dance must take into account this diversity. A vernacular such as Urban Kathak (and I only use this as one example amongst many) needs to be recognised and brought into those contemporary dialogues about dance particularly when examining the arts within the Western realm. Forms such as Kathak, Urban Kathak and Indian folk (to name a few) no longer sit outside the parameters of Britain. They are a part of the contemporary British space.
Second, Sabri notes that Finnan ‘felt very strongly about the involvement of a female choreographer of South Asian descent in his work’, that is as a role model for both the dancer and spectator. Sabri explains how this has taken shape through her involvement with Wondrous Stories. She notes that her presence has allowed her to breathe life into the dancers and crew (and hopefully the spectator when the show goes live in March 2022) prompting them to realise that the South Asian woman does and can exist outside the rudiments of convention. For example, ‘through this assignment I’m finding that those participants of a South Asian background—especially the girls of South Asian heritage—naturally respond to my instructions and are keen to find out about my own experience in terms of my dance training in Kathak.’ Further, performers from other dance groups within the project as well as members of the creative team have also seen what she has constructed with her dance groups in relation to the use and influence of the Kathak and Indian folk dance lexis, and again have been keen to find out about her background in dance.
Twenty years on since the birth of her dance company, Sabri continues to experiment with her dancing body and aesthetic, in turn educating the spectator about some of the outcomes of her investigative work. But her vision of extending the position of the form still remains the same. She continues to drive her work and ideas forward so that eventually the language of her art can sit comfortably alongside other existing and recognised Western-based dance forms. And, if there’s one thing that Sabri wishes the reader to take away from having read this piece of writing, then that is that she is a catalyst for change.
For more details about Sabri’s work, visit: www.ssco.org.uk/ .
For further information about Motionhouse’s Wondrous Stories and Sabri’s involvement, see www.motionhouse.co.uk/production/wondrous-stories/
FREE and unticketed performances: 17 March 7pm; 18, 19 and 20 March 6.30pm and 8.30pm.
Cover Photograph: Sonia Sabri Company. “Jugni”, 2014. Photograph by Simon Richardson.