Have you ever wondered, "what was the very first sound, the Big Bang sound?" Well, Boonham’s world premiere of Ex Nihilo and The Human Edge uses ancient Indian sacred texts to answer this question. Trained in Bharatanatyam and a choreographic affiliate with the Royal Ballet Studio Programme since 2012, Boonham blends material from the classical Indian genre with contemporary dance and ballet. Commissioned by the Royal Ballet Studio Programme and Pavilion Dance South West, with the participation of Royal Ballet dancers Yuhui Choe and Kenta Kura, and Boonham’s own company ATMA dance, this double-bill is an enquiry into our mythical past.

Ex Nihilo © ROH / Andrej Uspenski, 2014
Ex Nihilo
© ROH / Andrej Uspenski, 2014

Based on the Rigveda’s Hymn of Creation (ca 1700 – 1100 BC), Ex Nihilo (Latin for "out of nothing") is a journey to the origin of our universe. As in any creation myth, at first, it is pitch black. Elementary particles collided in the dark: under a fluorescent light, we can barely descry the dancers, scattered on the floor, as they imperceptibly change pose. A spotlight traces the surface of the boiling universe revealing and magnifying the dancers’ skin. Evolution proceeds fast and, in several quick chapters, we see the creatures gradually creeping off the floor to standing. Along the way, we distinguish images of sea creatures crawling through water, of majestic cranes with long legs flapping their wings, of archers chasing their prey with arrows, and of an Indian temple bass relief whose figures of gods and goddesses are singing and dancing under the starry night.

Ex Nihilo/ The Human Edge © ROH / Andrej Uspenski, 2014
Ex Nihilo/ The Human Edge
© ROH / Andrej Uspenski, 2014

The illusion created by ATMA’s dancers is assisted by Guy Hoare’s beautiful lighting design, a sea of light bulbs whose tidal limb reaches out to hover over the audience, and Bill Fontana’s soundscape. The surreal fragmented shimmer of Fontana’s installation, partly natural, partly artificial, is based on a recording taken at the CERN Large Hadron Collider. Vivid, often complementary, colours illuminate the simple elegant lines of the dancers' unisex costumes – blue and red, yellow and violet – while the bulbs cut the aerial space in two: the sky above, and below, the earth. The dancers trapped in between, in constant tension, create lines connecting earth and sky. Their movements alternate between slow motion and typical stamping, angular lines and mudras – traditional hand gestures; among the several beautiful images, a human pyramid and three simultaneous duets, all slightly similar. The sound of creation is completed as one of the dancers starts singing under the falling stars.

With the second piece we are definitively in the seat of the living divinities. Based on the myth of Sati, the first goddess, The Human Edge is danced by the splendid Royal Ballet dancers Yuhui Choe and Kenta Kura. Sati is born as a lonely figure in the middle of the stage. A man, Shiva, soon joins her. It is the start of an idyllic passionate love story that is depicted from falling in love, through courtship, to the more mature and stable phases, when the two lovers know they can count on each another. A clear depiction of perfect devotion between two gods (obviously, it is a little too perfect for human beings), the piece did not seem to have a pregnant storyline, beside the constant parting and coming together showing the couple growing affection – but I might have missed out on some details, not remembering the myth well.

Ex Nihilo © ROH / Andrej Uspenski, 2014
Ex Nihilo
© ROH / Andrej Uspenski, 2014

On the music of the Delhi based electronica duo Midival Punditz, Choe and Kura’s sequence reminded me of Bollywood singing and dancing duets. Midival Punditz’s music is a clear break from Fontana’s abstraction that – considering the Darwinian pattern – makes sense, but might be too sharp a cut. The dancers are technically beautiful but the Indian touches that illuminated the first part are totally washed away by the ballet quality. Their ballet training seems in the way and the movement became so fluid, that it looks more Tai Chi-inspired than Indian Bharatanatyam. All that remained of Indian quality was just some of the hand gestures, whereas the forceful stamping left no trace. The duet parts had beautifully intricate moments but the most suggestive images remain Sati’s birth, Choe’s arms pulsate on the rhythm of a heartbeat – she seems trembling, alive and mechanical all at once – and the end, as she literally switches the lights off.

It is refreshing to come in contact with a different creation myth. But it is difficult to blend different dance traditions, as one forms new hybrid vocabularies and aesthetics, operating at the very heart of one's own culture. In Boonham’s case these are two and possibly that is why she manages this balancing act, stirring this cocktail perfectly, and producing an harmonious smooth aroma, both dynamically and at the level of steps. I would have seen more Indian-inspired elements as they seemed very few compared to the contemporary dance and when they occurred, they spiced up the atmosphere. But that’s a matter of individual taste.