Akademi’s Artistic director and Joint-CEO, Suba Subramaniam, writes about her artistic vision.
Gesture – Rhythm – Storytelling
Dance is movement, and at Akademi, we keep moving to find important social and political stories to tell, often new incarnations of old stories – with new ways to tell them, and new audiences to share them with.
Akademi has a long and impressive history, but it’s nothing compared to the history of some of the dance forms we draw on which can be traced back thousands of years. The way we’re taught Bharatnatyam and Kathak is that we dance from the inside out – and so our thoughts and feelings manifest themselves in our bodies.
The language of Bharatnatyam is really beautiful dance language. It’s codified and has strength, fluidity, narrative drive and dynamism that I think, can be accessible to everyone. Bharatnatyam and other traditional South Asian dance forms allow for exploration within a contemporary context and boundaries to be pushed. There is flexibility, as a choreographer, to work with this form.
There is something special about connecting people in a group within a space and within a story through the ‘mudras’ – the gestures that start from our own bodies, and evolve out of our own interpretation. I think those gestures are really beautiful and allow us to physicalize feelings and ideas that begin internally.
I have found that the essence of Bharatnatyam can be picked up readily by dancers with no formalised training. It’s fantastically versatile – it can be combined with other dance forms and the rigour of trained dancers to make aesthetically beautiful work. It can speak to many different people in terms of wanting to move their bodies, not only because it’s gestural, but also through the strength of its storytelling.
South Asian Dance is for everyone
We see this time and time again in our work where the stillness, gestures and form of South Asian dance have a deep effect on people’s physical being. The reason we can have this effect on the people who participate is that it doesn’t take much to feel or to allow your body to feel slightly different, and this helps us not only connect better with our own emotions, but find common ground and connections with others.
Sharing South Asian dance and movement with people who don’t have access to it is at the core of what we do. How we reach people at Akademi is by taking our work into lots of different spaces with diverse groups of people who have different abilities. We work in care homes and schools for example, or perform in public spaces so we encounter and engage with those who have not actively sought out dance but have bumped into us and been drawn in. What we can do is provide people with moments of release, moments of joy and moments of a different kind of experience.
Whether it’s a show or a workshop, whether it’s for children and families, or whether we’re taking a piece of work to a museum or a shopping precinct, all of it is about the communities that we’re engaging with. How we engage and connect with those communities through South Asian dance is what’s important to Akademi.
When I see contemporary dance now, I feel that the gesture and the strong form of Bharatanatyam in hand movements may be having a wider effect on contemporary dance. The way that hands are used in contemporary dance is so intentional and gestural now, and that is a shift from what we used to see.
I feel deeply proud to be part of the South Asian dance sector. The way we approach creating dance – the rigour and the innovation, the power of harnessing classical forms to new choreography and settings – makes what we do stand out for me, and I can see how it affects and excites audiences who see the work. It’s innovation and invigoration together, and it can convey complex ideas and emotions in ways that more direct approaches cannot.
How it started – how it’s going
My training in South Asian dance was relatively traditional, starting where I was born in Malaysia and continuing in London at The Bhavan with a diploma in Bharatanatyam music and theory. It felt right to take on this role as Artistic Director because I have been through a journey with Akademi for over 25 years in different guises – as a workshop leader, a commissioned dance artist and a Board Trustee.
I’ve had incredibly diverse opportunities as a performer early on in my training in all sorts of places, from my life in Malaysia to everything the UK presented – performances on cobbled streets to being in front of dignitaries at the Bhavan. This gives me the versatility and resilience to just go out and perform, and not always in the most conducive conditions, and that’s helped me become more resilient and adventurous about how and where South Asian dance can be experienced.
I’ve always tried to be open-minded, working with a broad range of choreographers in different settings and discovering along the way that I wanted to do something different in my work and find new routes to take on big ideas and issues. My exploration of working with Bharatanatyam out of its traditional context stemmed from wanting to be more physical, picking up on traditional Bharatanatyam dance pieces and working in different ways, and developing choreographic creativity.
As an organisation, almost all the projects and work we do involves everyone on the team, because very few elements of what Akademi do are not connected up. We have a brilliant team of people who are all experts at what we do, but we also come from a place of not putting expertise over collaboration.
Our current and future world
My first degree is in science, which led me to one of my great loves science teaching, and the many rewards of engaging young people in scientific thinking and processes. Climate change is the single biggest problem on our planet today and anyone can see how it’s causing a lot of anxiety amongst young people. Those that are fed up with seeing stories of doom and gloom have become disengaged, but my experience shows me that people can be re-engaged in a more human way through art.
When I’m doing research for new work, science has taught me to ditch preconceptions, ask relevant questions, think about the answers, and then ask more. With all the artists, composers and lighting designers we work with, we are trying to find different lenses to say the same story through the different art forms.
Care at the centre
After 25 years of making dance in the UK, I have a huge amount of touring and making experience, also for getting funding or shaping work and collaborating with lots of different kinds of artists of work in different settings. I hope this experience can be of use to other dance artists who are early on in their process.
One way we support this is by giving opportunities for freelance choreographers to develop their practice and work on projects with us so they can focus on just choreographing as much as possible. We take the pressures of marketing, managing people and admin away. My job is to give other artists opportunities, and I’m acutely aware of that. Within our capacity as an organisation and the time I have available, we support emerging new artists and makers. When people reach out to us for help, we contribute real beneficial in-kind support for their development where possible.
We put care at the centre of everything that we do at Akademi. Caring deeply about dance, the people we work with and the artists and creatives who make work, we care about the planet and our future and we care that as many people as possible can participate and benefit from the joy of South Asian dance.