Australian Dance Reviews

Raghav Handa’s ‘The Assembly’: A Mind and heart journey

Raghav Handa's 'The Assembly'. Photo by Nat Cartney Photography.
Raghav Handa's 'The Assembly'. Photo by Nat Cartney Photography.

Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney.
7 March 2024.

Raghav Handa is an acclaimed Indian Australian choreographer, whose latest work The Assembly, presented by and created at Campbelltown Arts Centre, had a short, punchy season earlier this month.  Handa is a diverse artist whose body of work spans performance and choreography that is heavily inspired by his Indian heritage, alongside past and current perceptions. Handa uses a variety of mediums and performance modes to explore and present his creative concepts. Trained in both traditional Indian and modern contemporary dance techniques, Handa draws both worlds together with exceptional ingenuity.

The Assembly incorporates traditional Kathak dance principles, with western theatrical and contemporary dance structures and concepts. Kathak dance is said to have originated in ancient north India, in the wandering tribes of Kathakars, meaning ‘storytellers’. It features rhythmical foot movement with many ankle bells to accentuate the musical accompaniment. The Assembly had an intricate and intense sense of story, with elements of the Indian cultural dance form a consistent thread throughout the work. Handa performed a solo of the Kathak form, which was quite engaging and connected.

On the surface, The Assembly is an exploration of some aspects of Handa’s life and his experience of varied sociocultural perceptions. The childhood aspects included playing out a scene of the times his grandfather used to take Handa and his peers for army drills and target practice after school, in response to the local terrorist attacks that were occurring in the area he lived. This was explored at the beginning of the work to set up the background on which the perception for the entirety launches. The Assembly explores its theme at another level, human behaviour through different perceptions, such as memory, elderly looking at the behaviour of a younger generation and how they might interpret happenings and events, the telling of story through our own perceived memory of it, and the distortions that come through biases.

Created in collaboration with dance artists Victor Zorallo and Josh Freedman, this trio are high energy, entertaining, thought provoking, deep, humorous and raw. There are moments of awkward discomfort that challenge the audience, along with moments of openness and vulnerability. Power structures and the humanity in it all are played out like a dreamscape, a surreal internal dialogue and struggle. It is a work that seems not to be trying to curate meaning in every single obvious moment, but one that invites the audience to sit back and absorb the whole. There are subtext and layers to process, much deeper than the bright coloured pompoms, abundant glitter and cash that is spread across the stage. Concepts creep in at a subconscious level, hinting at the cultural obsession with class, colour, brightness and happiness that is juxtaposed with a tradition that rejects that which is perceived as less than a machismo stereotype. The subtext is in the dialogue, spoken and unspoken, and harsh physical images to go with it. It is a whirlwind of a work, that is a lot to take in.

Handa has a very interesting way of forming a unique thread and expressing narrative. His work takes the audience on a mind and heart journey, leaving a deep impression for processing. The choreography is performed with strength and abandonment, the light and shade in this all-male trio wonderful to see. The three performers work synergistically yet distinctively, and their maturity as artists gives us space to move with them through the work.

The creative team brought their various elements to complement the work, including sound artist James Brown who brought a high energy score that enhanced the mood at every turn, lighting designer Fausto Brusamolino sculpted the space in intimacy and complimentary lines, and designer Isabel Hudson curated interesting set pieces that added to the subtext. Vicki Van Hout bringing her own extensive experience as an indigenous dance maker to help shape The Assembly as dramaturg. This powerhouse team delivered on all fronts, and they should be proud of their achievement in bringing this important work to fruition.

By Linda Badger of Dance Informa.

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