• Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Arts and Culture

Stafford Arima: Exploring cultural identity through new dance moves

Bhangra Nation – a new musical has universal appeal, says director

Performers Siobhan Athwal, Iván Fernández González, Jena Pandya and Zaynah Ahmed

By: Sarwar Alam

THE glitz and glamour of American dance competitions will hit the Birmingham Rep theatre next month in the form of Bhangra NationA New Musical.

Director Stafford Arima told Eastern Eye that bhangra groups are “not just in a couple of states, but spread across America”.

“The writers felt that given the widespread American interest in bhangra competitions across the United States, it was a perfect opportunity to incorporate this form. In many ways, bhangra has also liberated the cultural setting of the world of universities,” said Arima.

“Many of the best choreographers utilise elements of bhangra in certain hip hop moves, for example. But what makes this musical so original is the use of bhangra dancing and the use of south Asian traditional music in combination with musical theatre. There is a new sound, a new voice, and I don’t believe there’s ever been something like this before.”

Bhangra dance and music initially spread to the West through first-generation south Asian immigrants. Its popularity grew in the US with the emergence of Bhangra Remix, where young second-generation south Asians blended Punjabi musical elements into their music and danced to bhangra rhythms in club basements.

It has now become a fully-fledged college staple with the University of Maryland, the University of California at Berkley and the University of Michigan taking part in national competitions such as Bhangra Blowout, which recently took place at George Washington University.

 Bhangra Nation – A New Musical looks at the journey of friends Mary and Preeti, who are students at a university in Michigan.

When The Tigers, their bhangra team, qualifies for the USA nationals, it becomes a dividing force rather than a celebratory moment, causing a rift among friends due to differing perceptions of what the dance form represents.”

Mary believes it’s crucial for bhangra, particularly this American collegiate variation, to incorporate modern elements like hip hop. On the other hand, Preeti insists on preserving its traditional essence without incorporating any western dance elements.

This conflict leads the girls to go their separate ways and form their own groups, ultimately competing against each other.

Arima said the girls’ idea of what bhangra should be is a reflection of their own contemplations on culture and identity.

“Mary is half-south Asian and half-Irish. Preeti is full Punjabi and feels that it’s important to stay true to her culture, while Mary, who is Caucasian and south Asian, feels divided by what this means for her. Is she allowed to have elements of her Caucasian culture in her south Asian world? Or is it one or the other?” said Arima.

“What’s invigorating about the material is that while it’s a very traditional musical in the sense that there are vibrant characters, an intoxicating score, singing and dancing, and an interesting story, there seems to be a new language that is being shared.

Stafford Arima
Stafford Arima

“I don’t mean language in the sense of cultural language, I’m talking about an artistic language. This artistic language is really bridging these two worlds of traditional musical theatre with a south Asian cultural artistic ingredient.”

He added: “You have this very universal story about identity and about figuring out who you are and how you are connected with culture, and specifically your culture, but it’s all intertwined in this electrifying musical that takes us on a brilliant journey of awakening.”

Arima is an award-winning director who became the first Canadian Asian to direct a musical on Broadway when his production Allegiance, starring Star Trek icon George Takei and Tony award winner Lea Salonga, premiered at the Longacre Theatre in 2015.

He has directed shows around the world such as Carrie and Altar Boyz in the US, Ragtime in the West End and The Secret Garden in Japan.

The 53-year-old said what attracted him to Bhangra Nation – A New Musical, was that as a son of a Chinese mother and a Japanese father, he could relate to the themes of the play.

“It’s fascinating because the reason why this piece is universal is that it doesn’t really matter if you are American, or if you’re south Asian – we all are battling internally about our identity,” he said.

“I was born in Canada, but my professional life has been in the United States. I live with this kind of confusion, am I Chinese, Japanese, Canadian or American? “Identity is such a rich conversation that is happening today, because young people are even more open to discussing their roots, their culture and their identity. A lot of our parents never spoke of this because they were immigrants, but more conversations are now happening.

“This story deals with these complexities, but doesn’t give answers, because I don’t think there is any one answer. But it does illuminate how we can as a society, and as individuals, find harmony within much larger ways of thinking rather than confine it to traditional or modern.”

There was an earlier incarnation of the production, titled Bhangin’ It: A Bangin’ New Musical, which had been performed successfully at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, California.

Arima said several theatres around the world wanted the show, but what led to it arriving at the Birmingham Rep was their successful staging of another US-related production.

Though it’s an American story, Bhangra Nation – A New Musical, has an all-British cast. “The UK has got some extraordinary talent,” he said .

“We felt it would just be more beneficial for us to start with a group of fresh new performers, who are all from either London or Birmingham, and who are all excited about taking on an American character and learning something about the American way of life through university settings, but also telling a story that is universal.”

  Bhangra Nation – A New Musical will be staged at the Birmingham Rep from Saturday, February 17 until Saturday,march 16.

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