With their flirtatious flashing eyes, intricate footwork and elegant hand gestures, the south Asian dancers who burst onto the stage at London’s Milton Court not only brought Rameau’s music to vivid, joyous life, they also achieved what might have seemed impossible: a fusion of the Indian classical dance tradition to the French Baroque.

Artists from Sanskriti UK and Ankh Dance at Milton Court © BBC | Mark Allan
Artists from Sanskriti UK and Ankh Dance at Milton Court
© BBC | Mark Allan

That it at worked so well is in large part due to the new Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers, Sofi Jeannin, who is bringing fresh thinking to what can be the most static of events, the choral concert. After only a short time in the job she is already making waves with some imaginative programming and her inspirational approach to choral direction.

Opening with Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Te Deum was her bold statement of intent: she seemed to be saying “These singers are soloists, too, and I intend to be proud of them.” Sopranos Alice Gribbin and Elizabeth Poole, alto Ciara Hendrick, tenors Chris Bowen and Tom Raskin and bass Michael Bundy all shone in this florid yet intensely rhythmic music, Jeannin simultaneously keeping everything on a tight rein while giving the 6/8 sections and irresistible swing. The Academy of Ancient Music responded to her neat, no-nonsense conducting with an easy, elegant grace and, when the music demanded it, with an exciting blaze of trumpets and drums. (Poor Lully: this was to be his last piece. He smashed a baton into his foot when conducting it, contracted an infection and died.)

There were more soloist credentials on display in Rameau’s In convertendo Dominus, with tenor Chris Bowen on particularly fine form. The sonorous bass of Jamie W Hall combined deliciously with Emma Tring’s bright soprano in the Magnificat Dominus section, a duet of great charm. Rebecca Lea fared less well in Laudate nomen Dei, her soft-grained soprano often overwhelmed by the orchestra, and Andrew Rupp’s bass solo in Converte, Domine seemed sluggish against the skittish woodwind writing that swirled around him. 

Sofi Jeannin, the BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music © BBC | Mark Allan
Sofi Jeannin, the BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music
© BBC | Mark Allan

But all this was by way of an introduction to the main attraction of the evening, curated by Akademi South Asian Dance UK and performed by artists from Sanskriti UK and Ankh Dance.

Rameau apparently saw native American dancers in Paris in 1735 and inspired by their stylised gyrations, wrote Les Indes galantes, a bit of a world tour of a piece, with dances in the gardens of Osman Pasha, the Air of the African Slaves and dances for sailors and Peruvian Incas. Whatever its inspirations, dancers Abirami Namasivayam, Sundaresh Ramesh and Uma Venkataraman melded the Bharatanatyam style of Indian classical dance to Rameau’s gloriously idiosyncratic rhythms with great energy and charm. This music, so deftly played by the AAM, cries out to be danced. So often we sit in the concert hall trying to imagine what the choreography might have looked like, and while this was miles away from 18th-century Versailles it nevertheless seemed utterly appropriate. And there was some outstanding solo work from soprano Helen Neeves, with a chorus of lusty sailors for company.

Artists from Sanskriti UK and Ankh Dance, Sofi Jeannin, BBC Singers and Academy of Ancient Music © BBC | Mark Allan
Artists from Sanskriti UK and Ankh Dance, Sofi Jeannin, BBC Singers and Academy of Ancient Music
© BBC | Mark Allan

Excerpts from Les Fêtes d’Hebé ou Les talens lyriques and Castor and Pollux were choreographed in the freer style of Kathak dance. Jesal Patel, Seema Patel and Shivani Sethia swirled their way across the stage in voluminous white robes, spinning and turning charmingly but to less effect than their more angular and rhythmically precise colleagues; their Demons’ Dance certainly wouldn’t scare anyone.

But what of the choir? Being a BBC Singer is one of the most demanding callings in music. It’s a full-time job, with each member being asked to master a vast repertoire and have the ability to both be a soloist and a team player. Jeannin understands this and the particular demands of being a radio choir (her last job was with Radio France). She was a popular choice to take over from David Hill and already the BBC Singers seem different; more focused, better disciplined and yet perhaps also more relaxed. It’s going to be an interesting future.

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