For two evenings in August 2000, Akademi presented Coming Of Age – a dance event drawing together nearly a hundred dancers in at site-specific spectacle directed by Keith Khan. From Bharatanatyam to Bhangra, from creative dance to Kathak, the dazzling diversity of South Asian dance came together in an event featuring performers aged from two to over eighty-two, and which reached out to an audience of over ten thousand.
The Event - this is how it was...
It is the South Bank Centre, London. A complex stretching over 27 acres along the Thames, the Houses of Parliament to the West, St Paul's Cathedral to the East. At the centre of this complex stands the Royal Festival Hall, a huge building fronted by concrete and glass, built in 1951 for the Festival of Britain. For two evenings, on the 11th and 12th of August 2000, this building, with its walkways, terraces and surrounding walls was transformed into a floodlit performance space for South Asian dance. Welcome to Coming of Age, a dance event celebrating 21 years of Akademi, and over 21 years of South Asian dance in Britain.
It is 9 p.m. and the long August day is just giving way to night. An expectant crowd jostles and chats, surging against the stages placed like islands amongst them. There is a hush as a solitary dancer creates a shimmering image of Shiva, as if suspended, high up on the top balcony of the Festival Hall. Down below, a young girl, just five years old heralds the future of South Asian dance here in the UK, where she has learnt all she knows.
The music shifts, becoming more jaunty, assured. And suddenly the space is alive with dancers - spiralling their way up steps, flashing out on top of balconies, here framed in a doorway or a window, there beating time along the riverbank, dancing on the multiple stages amidst the crowds. The generations and the diversity that made and continue to make South Asian dance in this country are spectacularly united - Bharatanatyam next to Kathak, Odissi next to creative dance. Folk dancers weave through the audience, while down near the riverbank, an art installation brings the space alive. On one stage we see Manipuri – on another, three generations of dancers – a guru with her daughter, now a teacher herself, and between them, the youngest family's dancer, just two years old.
Wherever you look there are dancers to watch, some close to you, some further away, some traversing distances with their feet, others travelling only with their eyes. For fifty minutes, the South Bank lights up in an explosion of styles and forms, all against a soundtrack as varied and stylish as the dance it summons.
Another lull as Ram Gopal is brought to the stage nearest to Hungerford Bridge. He sits, regally watching the scene, while the Millennium wheel revolves slowly round in the background and another circle echoing the wheel frames him in lights. As the dancers turn to pay their respects, a tangible link is made between the very early days of South Asian dance in Britain and now - its coming of age.