Sadler’s Wells, London
October 13, 2023
Female sexual desire. It’s a taboo subject in societies across the world, liberal as well as conservative. Not only that, but when women dare to raise, discuss and own the subject, they frequently find themselves sanctioned, judged, hounded and punished, notes Indian choreographer Aditi Mangaldas, who explores the topic in her appropriately titled Forbidden.
The hour-long solo is not an expression of female sexual desire per se. Mangaldas is a kathakar. She narrates stories. Forbidden is a journey, her journey based on personal emotions and experiences. It’s an expression of such desire awakening but also of self-denial; of what it is like to feel it being repressed and the rage that brings; and finally about reclaiming it, and the freedom and the being at peace with oneself that follows.
It’s also a story that has relevance beyond women because, although specifically about female sexual desire, it’s wider message can easily be extrapolated to any taboo or difficult subject, male or female.
Mangaldas is a marvellous performer who commands the stage throughout. At first, she tosses and turns as if in restless sleep. When she rises, one senses that she is experiencing the awakening of feelings that she doesn’t understand and has difficulty expressing. She convulses. A hand repeatedly covers he mouth, but also her ears. That she is dealing with some sort of taboo, that she feels silenced, is clear. In an upstage patch of light it feels like she is imprisoned, blindfolded, gagged.
That the issue is female sexual desire is perhaps less apparent without prior knowledge, however. The same goes for the meanings the ankle bells she wears take on. Very evident is that her taking them off (having indicated to the audience that they should be quiet) is a momentous moment, however, not least when more bells fall from above, thudding on the floor like great weights released. Michael Hulls’ lighting, wonderful throughout, especially the way it focuses attention in or widens out in the freer moments, has them appear to burn, leaving only red embers.
The movement language is that of contemporary dance given a particular spin with an infusion of kathak. Mangaldas’ hands speak loudly in particular. Fingers paint detailed, vivid pictures. The awakening of her desire is specifically depicted as the flowering of a bud. A bud that eventually becomes a beautiful flower.
Throughout, she dances with great passion, sometimes with ferocity. With abandon too, notably when she spins around and across the stage in a whirl of fast movement. She really is an exceptional performer. Quite compelling in every way. Every moment is imbued with meaning. Even the stillnesses seem charged.
Mangaldas says, while she feels the need to talk about female sexual desire and ask questions, she doesn’t have answers. Except that, in a way, she does, namely to be brave and to confront that taboo and those who would prefer the subject was hidden away.
Her own moment of courage comes towards the end of her story. She tells of an all-female dinner party where circumstance allowed her to ask the others about their fantasies, their sexual desires. There was, she says, a moment of fearful longing. “They dared to dream. In every eye, I saw, I heard, what if?”
And there is the answer, or at least a start. It’s easier said than done but, to have the courage to speak out. To dare.
Aditi Mangaldas in Forbidden is now concluded at Sadler’s Wells but is at Northern Stage, Newcastle-upon-Tyne on October 20.
She returns to the UK in Spring 2024 with a new duet with Aakash Odedra that will tour more widely.
Read also David Mead’s conversation with Aditi Mangaldas about Forbidden.