BREATHE by Kalpanarts at the Korzo Theater in The Hague

We first saw the Kalpanarts company at the Korzo almost exactly a year ago with True Life which explored aspects of death and mourning. Founded by Kalpana Raghuraman and Gysèle ter Berg in 2016 and based in The Hague, their new work, Breathe, examines freedom and how to attain it. Indian philosophy believes that achieving a free soul is more important than struggling to overcome the limitations of day-to-day existence and the act of breathing is fundamental to that. Ms Raghuraman grew up learning various Indian meditation techniques. “Breath was always at the core. You come to yourself through breathing,” she says.

Although Kalpanarts is essentially an Indian dance company in as much as its founder, artistic director and choreographer is Indian, it is a lot more than just that. If you didn’t know it was Indian, it wouldn’t immediately register. The Indian aspect was a starting point rather than a goal, establishing an intellectual and spiritual foundation rather than a physical stylistic one. There are clearly influences and moves from Indian dancing, a lot of foot stamping and agile fingers for example, but there are many other inputs as well, including a multinational group of dancers who all influence and shape what we see on stage.

Breathe begins with the company, five dancers and four musicians, standing silently on the stage, the performance area being established by neon strip light forming a line on the ground on three sides of the stage. The performers slowly begin to sway and you gradually pick up the sounds of breathing.

Breathe is essentially an ensemble piece but there are several solo sequences and a fine duet by two of the male dancers. The Matangi Quartet were always fully integrated in the action and played a significant part in, what for me, were the two most exciting sequences in the piece. In one the quartet was centre stage, lit from above in a chiaroscuro tableau. The dancers were in shadow but each moved slowly backwards and forwards into spotlight beams which just shone on their eyes. The other sequence involved just the cello player, also centre stage lit by a dramatic spot light, accompanying one of the solo passages by one of the male dancers. The violin is often used in Indian classical music – there is a wonderful album from the 1960s called East Meets West by Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin . . . but I digress. I was going to say that while the violin is not uncommon in Indian music I am not aware that the cello is often used. This sequence was the only one where the music was overtly Indian and the cello with its rich brown tones turned out to be eminently suited. There was some taped tabla percussion used occasionally but it was the excellent original music by Simone Giacomini which provided the cement that held the performance together.

The Matangi Quartet played beautifully but I was not convinced that it was a good idea to involve them in the actual choreography. When you put dancers next to non-dancers and ask them to do the same thing, the differences are very obvious. The four musicians were clearly ill equipped and looked awkward. This did not bother me unduly but would constitute my only real issue with the otherwise excellent Breathe.

The décor and often stunning lighting by Jeffrey Steenbergen and costumes by Aziz Bekkaoui completed the package and once again Kalpanarts has demonstrated, with Breathe, that the whole can exceed the sum of the parts.  Michael Hasted  6th October 2023