Sport, culture... and a crazy idea from Sheffield

Choreographer Balbir Singh and former Olympic synchronised swimmer Heba Abdel Gawad  who have devised Synchronised, water theatre spectacle which combines western contemporary and Kathak (classical North Indian) dance with synchronised swimming set to take place on Thursday 14 June 2012 at Ponds Forge, Sheffield.
Choreographer Balbir Singh and former Olympic synchronised swimmer Heba Abdel Gawad who have devised Synchronised, water theatre spectacle which combines western contemporary and Kathak (classical North Indian) dance with synchronised swimming set to take place on Thursday 14 June 2012 at Ponds Forge, Sheffield.

OF all the Cultural Olympiad events, one of the most inspired promises to be Synchronised, a water theatre spectacle combining western contemporary and Kathak (classical North Indian) dance with synchronised swimming, which premieres tonight (Thursday, June 14) at Ponds Forge.

The ground-breaking show is the culmination of 18 months of training by professional dancers, elite swimmers and members of the public, to create a large scale water based performance accompanied by live traditional Indian music.

It has been devised by choreographer Balbir Singh and former Olympic synchronised swimmer Heba Abdel Gawad and is part of Imove, Legacy Trust UK’s programme for Yorkshire.

So where did the exciting concept emerge from? “Whose crazy idea was it?, you mean,” laughs Singh. “Me, I conceived the whole thing two or three years back when I was thinking of what I could do to bring sport and culture together in Olympic year.

“I had always done a lot of swimming and Indian classical dance has an affinity with water both technically and also spiritually such as the Ganges washing through Shiva’s hair and Krishna fighting a sea serpent. Synchronised swimming has an aesthetic quality not dissimilar to dancing,” observes the Bradford-based contemporary dancer and choreographer.

Since November 2010 the Balbir Singh Dance Company has been working with Egyptian-born Gawad, who competed at both the Athens and Sydney Games and now works as a personal trainer and pilates instructor in Leeds, on choreographing the work with a selection of trained Kathak dancers and elite synchronised swimmers. There were a few surprises in putting the concept into practice.

“It was interesting when we got to research and development which included going to see the GB squad in training. When I looked at moves which had worked in my head and tried it in the studio it just didn’t work. I always like to stretch myself and there was a lot of questioning and exploring and looking at the overlap and the divisions between the two disciplines. It was a question of working creatively in the water to see how their bodies worked.”

At the outset he chose dancers who were confident in the water. “But then you found other things like some of them didn’t like getting their hair wet,” he reflects. “Different people had different points of view in addressing the aesthetics and movement quality as well as the water. I have done a lot of swimming in the past and used water in my work. I did a piece at Edinburgh called Cargo which involved a lot of water and the audience were given ponchos at the start.

“Some of my dance training was in water to develop movement such as the way the hands move. It was interesting getting the dancers into the water for them to get an awareness of how their bodies moved and the differences in the technical aspects of dancing and swimming. It helps to be more fluid and, if you like, liquid.”

In 2011 they set up Aqua-Kathak sessions, similar to aqua aerobics, throughout Yorkshire. The first classes of their kind in the UK, Aqua-Kathak gave members of the public the opportunity to get involved in this very different style of dance and movement. Thirty individuals from these groups are taking part in this performance of Synchronised.

Synchronised swimming is a female sport but Singh was keen “to bring a male dimension into the mix.”

Along with the professional dancers there are community dance groups, including the Nisha Lall group from Sheffield, dancers from the Northern School, and synchronised swimming team, though these weren’t recruited locally.

“We discovered there’s a North-South divide in the swimmers who find their way into the national squad,” reports Singh. “The British Synchronised Swimming organisation is keen to develop more activity in the North. They also want to give it a different image rather than the cheesy one they seem to have.”

The 45-minute piece featuring a dozen musicians, the 40 strong Leeds People’s Choir and up to 40 dancers and swimmers takes place in front of the audience looking down on the pool, allowing them to observe the full effect of the routines which evokes the spirit of classic Hollywood movie choreographer Busby Berkeley’s extravagant dance sequences.

After the one-off performance tonight, Synchronised is likely to live on with a ‘dry land’ version being developed as part of the celebrations for the arrival of the Olympic torch in Sheffield on June 25 and there is talk of a Synchronised national tour after the Olympics.

The company organised a “splash mob” event in the fountains of the Peace Gardens on Saturday to promote the show.