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Bhangra style

Birmingham Rep next month presents the UK premiere of Bhangra Nation - a new musical set in the challenging world of American inter-college Bhangra competitions. What’s On recently caught up with the show’s director, Stafford Arima, to find out what audiences can expect...

Bhangra Nation, which opens at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre mid-February, tells the story of Mary and Preeti, two students who love the dance form but want to take it in different directions.

“It’s a contemporary feelgood musical,” explains the show’s director, Stafford Arima. “I’m passionate about this story and excited about how relevant it is and how universal in its narrative.”

American inter-college bhangra competitions are hugely popular and immensely competitive.

“Within the American collegiate world, there are so many groups and forms of competition that occur, including bhangra competitions. It’s wonderful, because there are immigrants who have moved to the United States and kept their traditions. 

“Bhangra has become very hip now, but I think that, whether you know the collegiate world of bhangra or not, you’ll still enjoy this musical. Because what you do understand is how do you fit in - how do you find yourself within this myriad of socialness that has occurred really in the last 10 to 15 years?”

Stafford explains that Bhangra Nation uses the tension of the contest to explore character and belonging - a little like the hit movie and musical Bring It On, which is set in the world of competitive cheerleading.

“Identity is something that we as a human race are figuring out, struggling with, trying to define, as our world gets divided more and more into ‘us’ and ‘them’ - you know, blue states and red states, conservatives and liberals, black and white. We try to figure out where we belong in all of this - who am I?

“In Bhangra Nation we are dealing with a story that revolves around a bi-racial protagonist, Mary, who is part South Asian and part white Irish, and she’s trying to figure out her identity and where she fits in. The other protagonist in the show, Preeti, is full South Asian, and she’s trying to work out where she fits into this world of bhangra competitions.”

When the two students decide to join the bhangra competition, their ideas on dance, culture and identity collide. Preeti seeks to keep the dance form traditional; Mary is keen to introduce new ideas. And, Stafford says, the college environment is ideal to explore ideas of self.

“The university setting is a space of debate, of figuring oneself out, of exploring how you exist in a microcosm - it’s a little bit of a world within a world. Because young people are still forming, I think that this setting makes it the perfect world for this exploration of self through the world of these bhangra competitions. 

“And the bhangra then gives the show its unique form. There hasn’t been a musical or even a play which has centralised this traditional art form in this kind of way that makes it contemporary.”

Bhangra Nation - written by Mike Lew and Rehana Lew Mirza, with music by Sam Willmott and choreography by Rujuta Vaidya - was first performed at the La Jolla Playhouse in California two years ago under the title Bhangin’ It. Now it’s been hugely developed and progressed for its UK premiere, which features local performers.

“Bhangra is very much to the fore in this show, and that is captured in the new name. It’s a ‘dancical’ more than a dance show because it’s a musical with lots of dancing.

“What has been so remarkable about the writing team is that the core of the show is the same as it was in the United States when it premiered there, but it has taken on so many different facets of narrative, of story, of plot, of sub-plot, of themes and of character. And now it feels like a brand-new show that we are bringing to Birmingham.” 

The team are looking forward to premiering Bhangra Nation at The Rep.

“Coming with a fresh new show, with a new cast and some new designers feels like an incredible gift to give the UK. I’ve always found that in the UK there’s an incredible openness to new work. And there’s an openness to musicals, too. In fact, some of the greatest musicals of my generation have come out of the UK.

“To be in a space like the Birmingham Rep, where creativity thrives, and to be in a city where bhangra thrives, and then to just be in a space where we know theatre thrives in the UK - and specifically in Birmingham - it felt like the universe was conspiring to work with us. 

“I think in many ways this show is borderless - it’s not confined by ‘this is an American story, therefore you have to be an American to understand it’, or ‘this is a South Asian story, therefore if you’re not South Asian you won’t get it’ or ‘if you don’t know what bhangra is, don’t come’. This breaks down those borders and barriers. Audiences will find the common ground in this tale of discovery and identity.”

Stafford and the team are hoping the Bhangra Nation journey continues beyond Birmingham.

“The dream is for this production to go onto stages everywhere, whether that be in Birmingham, Dubai, the West End or Canada; the potential for this piece is exhilarating. It’s infectious, it moves, it’s colourful, it’s vibrant, it tickles your funny bone and it pulls at your heartstrings. 

“It has all of the ingredients that are familiar. Audiences will know the artform of a musical, but they’ve never seen this hybrid of musical theatre meets South Asian culture.

“We have had some great musicals - most of them coming out of the UK - that have had South Asian characters or stories, like Bend It Like Beckham and Bombay Dreams, but there is something unique about this piece. I have strong faith that, whether or not you’re even a musical theatre fan, there’s something in this piece that’s for everyone. I can’t wait for Birmingham audiences to really experience it.”

by Diane Parkes