Dancer and choreographer Mavin Khoo discusses Darbar Festival

For the first time ever this November, Sadler’s Wells will be hosting Darbar Festival, a celebration of Indian classical dance. Building on its success since launching over ten years ago, Darbar and Sadler’s Wells have joined forces to offer an unprecedented classical dance programme specifically curated by Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist Akram Khan. One of the artists performing is Mavin Khoo, an internationally renowned Bharatanatyam dancer, who is also Artistic Director of ŻfinMalta Dance Ensemble and rehearsal director for the Akram Khan company. In Indian Adventures of Sitar and Dance, he will present a newly devised solo as part of an ongoing collaboration with vocalist OS Arun. We spoke to him about his relationship with the Bharatanatyam dance form and what he is particularly looking forward to seeing at the festival.

Can you tell us a little bit about what to expect from your solo piece at Darbar Festival?

My solo is essentially a one act journey that is developed out of 2 lines from a traditional music composition called the Varnam. Essentially by using the lines that say…’My lord, it is only you that I have total belief and conviction in, please do not be indifferent to me now’, a whole world is developed whereby the heroine experiences romantic love and longing, to sensuous erotic consummation, to loss and despair, death and finally spiritual transcendence. All in 45 minutes! The things that audiences can look for is my exploration into dancing from a female protagonist’s voice (something that has been an area of development since I made my solo debut at the age of 16). The second thing is the collaborative relationship with OS Arun, the ‘live’ sense which comes from a strong improvisational framework within the work. The marriage of dance that is stimulated by musical ‘in the moment’ choices and vice versa.

This piece is part of an ongoing collaboration between vocalist OS Arun and yourself – what has it been like to work together?

The relationship over the last 10 years has been deep, eye opening, stimulating, challenging. Arun took me into a whole new realm of musicality and depth. The first time we worked together, it was an immediate sense of challenge and he pushed me to challenge him and ensure that musically, I would equal him through dance. There is no element that is stronger than the other: they have to work side by side. He also further gave me the confidence to take risks in performance: that the ‘live’ element is truly live with the choices I would make. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but that’s the point.

How did you come to study and master Bharatanatyam?

I started training in Malaysia as a young 5 year old. By the time I was 10, I was very fortunate to be chosen to be a disciple of the legendary dance Guru of Bharatanatyam, Padma Shri Adyar K. Lakshman. I was 16 when I was presented in my full length solo debut and literally I was so blessed that my career immediately took off. The very next year, I was invited to inaugurate the renowned Music and Dance Festival at Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai which is I guess the Royal Opera House of Chennai when it comes to classical music and dance. Everything happened rapidly from there. I am far from being a master, but I live my life steeped into the form and keep going deeper and deeper to find more freedom.

You’re fluent in so many different dance styles, but what do you think is particularly special about Bharatanatyam and classical Indian dance as a whole? 

I think what is really particular about Bharatanatyam when it is done well, is first and foremost the notion of interpretation of text with a strong musical backbone- what we refer to as Abhinaya. When this is done well, it is truly a transcendental experience. Yes, there are other elements like its pure dance technique, rhythm, lines, foot work. But, for me, its uniqueness and artistry and the element that can’t just be learned and produced without a deep sense of surrender is this. I would say that this is the case of Indian classical dance as a whole.

You’re also going to be doing a live coaching session with BBC Young Dancer finalist Lakshmi Ranjan. What do you hope audiences will be able to take away from watching the relationship between student and teacher?

It’s very specific, what I will be doing with Lakshmi. When the idea of a session was suggested, I felt it was really important to share the depth with which we work and should work. The idea of interrogating a line to find innumerable possibilities of interpretation is something that is special of all classical interpretive roles. The same can be said when one is coaching Giselle or Swan Lake. What do we do when we revisit these classics? What more is there to search? These are some of the things I wish to share with Lakshmi and the audience.

Sadler’s Wells is staging Darbar Festival for the first time. Are you excited about any other performers or shows at the festival?

Extremely excited! Mythili is one of the most exceptional dancers of her generation, dearly loved and admired in Chennai and all around the world. Aditi Mangaldas is a legend and Dheerendra, I have heard so many fantastic things about him so I can’t wait to see him. I am of course so happy that Akram will be dancing – what he gives in his dance today is something beyond form. I am also happy to see that Seeta Patel has been given such a good opportunity, as this is a good benchmark for other British-based young South Asian artists to work towards.

Darbar Festival ran at Sadler’s Wells on 9-12 November.