Shobana Jeyasingh: Bayadère – The Ninth Life

Posted: April 16th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Shobana Jeyasingh: Bayadère – The Ninth Life

Shobana Jeyasingh: Bayadère – The Ninth Life, The Point, April 2

Shobana Jeyasingh's company in Bayadère - The Ninth Life (photo © Beinn Muir)

Shobana Jeyasingh’s company in Bayadère – The Ninth Life (photo © Beinn Muir)

I have to admit Shobana Jeyasingh’s new work, Bayadère – The Ninth Life baffled me at first; I couldn’t see a line through it. It is divided into three seamless acts but the first two look backwards in order for the third to move forwards. The past, like the ballast that it is, creates a certain resistance.

The work references the classical ballet, La Bayadère, choreographed in 1877 in Imperial Russia by the French ballet master Marius Petipa to a score by the Austrian composer Ludwig Minkus based on a story of Indian devadasi, or temple dancers. Jeyasingh’s attention is on the cultural inaccuracies in the production she saw some years ago: ‘I was bewitched by the choreography and the dancing. The poetic Kingdom of the Shades had me mesmerized. However I left the performance unsettled and with many unexpected questions. Why did the characters greet each other with such an un-Indian gesture? Why did the holy man (the fakir) move in an animal-like and servile manner? Why did the attendants of the golden dancing idol have blacked-up faces and dance so naively in contrast to the rest of the cast? Why was the Hindu temple dancer more reminiscent of an Ottoman Odalisque with matching water pot? I wondered just how much information about India was available to Europe at the time of the ballet’s creation in 1877.’

Such questions underlie a deeper concern, something Jeyasingh elaborated in a challenge to the dance community called Dance Making in the High Street at the recent Dance UK conference. The challenge is to cultural authenticity. Jeyasingh suggests the inaccuracies in La Bayadère stem less from ignorance in the west about India as from a deliberate manipulation of the facts to fit a contemporary image of the country’s culture. Jeyasingh cites a story from the nineteenth century ballet critic (and author of the scenario of Giselle) Théophile Gautier. Having seen a performance in London by Marie Taglioni in the role of a devadasi, Gauthier was perplexed by the appearance in 1838 of a troupe of genuine devadasi on tour in Paris. He tried to reconcile his vision of Taglioni with the genuine article in the person, particularly, of one of the dancers, Amany, about whom he wrote at length. Whatever his own feelings about Amany, Gautier realised that Parisian society was less interested in the real person than in the romantic fiction.

As an Indian choreographer living in England with an established company of dancers of several nationalities, Jeyasingh states that such cultural attitudes are still at play. ‘In dance we have an urge to see Indians produce art that delivers the comfort of knowing that it fulfills somebody else’s idea of what Indians do.’ At the conference two of her dancers, Avatâra Ayuso and Teerachai Thobumring, perform fragments of her Bayadère choreography that derive from what she calls ‘the high street’ of British choreography, a place where ‘people are in a constant stage of emergence.’ The dancing is authentic, luminous, intricate and emotionally powerful.

In effect, Jeyasingh has put these three elements together in her new work: it begins with the historical context of La Bayadère — a kind of lecture demonstration in which a blogger describes his experience of seeing a recent production as the dancers take on the roles of the scenario — followed by an exotic tableau of a devadasi (subtly embodied in the male body of Sooraj Subramaniam) being sniffed, tugged and inspected by an adoring public, and a final section in which Jeyasingh gives free rein to her own choreography. It is not without irony that the dancers enter in similar fashion to the famous entrance of the Kingdom of the Shades. Gabriel Prokofiev’s score samples that of Minkus but like Jeyasingh’s choreography finds its own contemporary identity.

I was more convinced of Jeyasingh’s position watching her Dance UK talk than watching Bayadère – The Ninth Life; at the conference the ideas and the choreography had a magical unity whereas the performance was like seeing the argument processed through three different choreographic filters. Of course at the conference she is addressing the dance community and its governing bodies — with whom she clearly has outstanding issues — whereas the new work is aimed at general audiences. But I am not convinced she needs to do this at all; Strange Blooms that I saw at the end of 2013 had already jettisoned any extraneous cultural identity. Jeyasingh has one of the most interesting minds working in choreography today but this recent effort to justify her position detracts from her full potential; poetry is one of the first elements to submit to the dictates of rational argument. Perhaps Bayadère – The Ninth Life is simply one of those necessary stages of Jeyasingh’s creativity that, once expressed, will lead to new work that will speak unerringly for itself.

 


Shobana Jeyasingh Dance: Strange Blooms & Configurations

Posted: December 23rd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Shobana Jeyasingh Dance: Strange Blooms & Configurations

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance, Strange Blooms & Configurations, Queen Elizabeth Hall, December 3

Noora Kela in Strange Blooms (photo: Chris Nash)

Noora Kela in Strange Blooms (photo: Chris Nash)

This review was commissioned by Pulse Magazine and first appeared online at www.pulseconnects.com. It was subsequently published in the Winter issue of the magazine. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the editor. 

It is no coincidence that Shobana Jeyasingh chose the biology of plants to underpin the twenty-fifth anniversary of her choreographic debut and the birth of her company. The program at Queen Elizabeth Hall included her first work, Configurations, as well as the world première of Strange Blooms. If the latter is the flowering of her artistic development, her bold collaboration with Michael Nyman in 1988 that became Configurations illustrates the clarity of the process by which she achieved it. Dylan Thomas used the metaphor of a ‘force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, and there is a very real sense in both works of Jeyasingh’s rich, fertile imagination driving the creative process towards fulfillment. Her initial use of the traditional bharatanatyam dance form has broadened – she spoke candidly in the question and answer session following the performance about feeling ‘over-defined at the beginning by race and culture’ – but she remains focused on generating meaning in dance without recourse to stories. Her materials are space, time and the bodies of her dancers; her process is one of consummate design.

The members of the Benyounes Quartet sit patiently in the shadows before the start of Configurations. They will be playing Nyman’s String Quartet No. 2 which itself is based on a rhythmic score in six sections that Jeyasingh had prepared as a brief for the composer. Such close artistic collaboration is key to the unity of purpose in each work. Lucy Carter’s lighting design projects a series of rectangles on to the floor that change pattern in rhythm with the music and create pathways for the four arching, spiraling dancers whose steps are so precisely choreographed to the music that they are as much human instruments as they are indefatigable interpreters. Two years ago Jeyasingh reworked the choreography. ‘I wanted to say the same thing but find a simpler way to say it.’ It is this economy of means and her painterly use of space that give the music such a rich visual quality that is further enhanced by Ursula Bombshell’s costumes in reds and orange. The dancers never falter as they carry the lyrical forms, beauty, patterns and colour – even a moment of deadpan humour – through to the work’s conclusion.

A similar organic line is at work in Strange Blooms, not only as the basis of its design but in the subject matter itself. It is organized in four sections based on different aspects of plant biology: the first on the way tendrils curl and swirl in their frenzied search for support; the second on the algorithms of branching; the third on cellular instabilities within plants that help them to move, and the fourth about hybridity or cross breeding. From the very first moment these eight strange blooms unfold before our eyes as if we are looking through a microscope or at a time-lapse film, with Guy Hoare’s patterns of light reminiscent of Rothko in fauve colours suffusing the choreographic development. Graphic projections are not easy to get right in a dance context, but Jan Urbanowski’s laser-like etchings of plant forms play beautifully on the dancers’ bodies while Fabrice Serafino’s costumes subtly harmonise gender and reveal the dance. One can still see the low plié of bharatanatyam but the dance vocabulary belongs more with the urgency of natural forms than with any particular style.

If Strange Blooms reveals the hidden life of plants, Gabriel Prokofiev’s score simulates the process in music. By dissecting a recording by Jane Chapman of Louis Couperin’s harpsichord piece, Chaconne la Complaignante, Prokofiev lays bare its mysterious internal processes before putting it all back together again in pristine form. Like the design of Strange Blooms, it is a remarkable journey that reminds us of the richness hidden in the depths of life. As Jeyasingh says, ‘Choreography is a way of revealing what is already there.’