Knowbody II, Elixir Festival 2017

Posted: July 2nd, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Festival | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Knowbody II, Elixir Festival 2017

Knowbody II, Elixir Festival, Sadler’s Wells, June 24

ELIXIR FESTIVAL at Sadler’s Wells, London, UK ; 22 June 2017 ; Credit : Johan Persson

Company of Elders in Shobana Jeyasingh’s Here (photo: Johan Persson)

Something interesting has happened to the bipartite formula for Sadler’s Wells’ Elixir dance festival celebrating lifelong creativity. Three year’s ago, the main stage performance Knowbody I was clearly the headliner of the festival while the Extracts, based predominantly on community dance, were the supporting acts. This year the quality of Knowbody II has declined while the first evening of Extracts has shown a marked advance in mature amateur dance to a middle ground between community dance and the main stage. One of the reasons is that the current programming of Elixir has not reflected what has been happening in mature dance in the intervening three years, both in this country and in Europe. Despite Sadler’s Wells membership of the large-scale, EU funded co-operation project, Dance On, Pass On, Dream On (DOPODO), that nine dance institutions from eight countries have developed to address ageism in the dance sector and in society, this year’s Elixir has the same format, some of the same performers, and the same division between professional and amateur companies as before. While the inclusion of Berlin’s Dance On Ensemble (a professional company for the over-40s) and some amateur performances from Holland, Germany and Denmark in the Extracts are welcome, it is a shame that Charlotta Öfverholm’s company Jus de la Vie, a signatory of the DOPODO agreement, could not be included on the main stage event this year. Öfverholm’s presence alone would have countered the tiresome absurdity of Annie-B Parson’s The Road Awaits Us and the misplaced, if respectful inclusion of Robert Cohan’s Forest Revisited. And if Elixir is addressing ageism in dance, why are such artists as Wendy Houstoun and Liz Aggiss, who are battling on the same front, missing from the lineup for the second time? But there is a much larger question that Sadler’s Wells’ own flagship Company of Elders raises that remains to be resolved.

There is a fundamental but vitally important distinction between presenting age on stage and celebrating age on stage. To watch Ana Laguna and Yvan Auzely on the main stage in Mats Ek’s Axe is to celebrate the unique contribution of the mature performer, and the same is true of the performance by Holland Dance of Jérôme Meyer and Isabelle Chaffaud’s My tasteful life in the first program of Extracts. It is not the difference between amateur and professional that counts but the degree to which performers can project their maturity in all its richness and complexity. This doesn’t happen, however, in Shobana Jeyasingh’s Here, choreographed for Company of Elders as part of Knowbody II; it opens promisingly with a wash of crimson costumes in glorious light but descends quickly to a composition of seated dancers waving arms, and such is the design of the chairs and the way the dancers are seated that a comparison with wheelchairs is unavoidable. This is a display of age dressed in glorious costumes and lights where the individuality of the dancers is replaced, in formal terms, by the identity of the group. If someone of Jeyasingh’s creativity cannot make a work on Company of Elders that celebrates their age, there is a problem. Perhaps the makeup of the company means she has had to create on the abilities of the weaker members to the detriment of the expressivity of the stronger ones, but no work of value can ensue from this compromise and the notion of a flagship company for mature dance sinks with it. For all the advantages Company of Elders receives as the Sadler’s Wells resident performance group for the over-60s — working with renowned choreographers, a highly visible platform, touring and high production values — its qualities are no more developed than its counterparts in Brighton, Ipswich, East London and Greenwich (all of whom were presented next door in Extracts). It would seem the opportunities laid at Company of Elders’ feet are being exploited rather than fully realised. Auditions may be one way forward and a re-selection of current members according to ability. And if Sadler’s Wells wants Company of Elders to share the main stage with professional dancers, shouldn’t they, too, be paid?

Another feature of this edition of Elixir that compromises its value is the presence of so many young dancers on the main stage program. Pascal Merighi, who choreographed a solo for Dominique Mercy at the last Elixir has for this one created a duet for Mercy and his daughter, Thusnelda. Why? In Forest Revisited, some of the dancers who once performed Robert Cohan’s Forest (Kenneth Tharp, Anne Donnelly, Linda Gibbs, and Christopher Bannerman, joined by a younger Paul Liburd) are seen teaching it to a new generation. Is Elixir becoming an intergenerational festival? Artistic director Alastair Spalding describes Elixir as ‘an evening featuring choreography created and danced by older artists’ while his programmers seem to be doing something else. What Extracts has confirmed, however, is that works for mature dancers are gaining in quality and interest; hopefully we won’t have to wait another three years for the next edition of Elixir festival to see mature dancers in a new category of work that is currently coming of age.


Shobana Jeyasingh, Material Men

Posted: October 12th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Shobana Jeyasingh, Material Men

Shobana Jeyasingh, Material Men, Queen Elizabeth Hall, September 16

Sooraj Subramanian and Shailesh Bahoran in Shobana Jeyasingh's Material Men (photo: Chris Nash)

Sooraj Subramanian and Shailesh Bahoran in Shobana Jeyasingh’s Material Men (photo: Chris Nash)

I saw Shobana Jeyasingh’s double bill of Material Men and Strange Blooms with a friend who has contributed the following review. I had seen Strange Blooms before and although it is a different cast with some changes to the production I have not written about it again. 

In a time when borders are closed and fences built, Shobana Jeyasingh’s Material Men feels both poignant and topical. In the note to the performance, Jeyasingh reminds us that the abolition of slavery in 1833 caused a wave of migration from the Indian subcontinent as European colonies sought cheap labour. Inspired by such a long history of migrant displacement, Material Men is a reflection on the ways in which cultural memories transmigrate across places and generations and how individuals mediate, absorb, long for or reject them; how memories — whether integrated or suppressed — contribute to forge individual identities. How the past, which is both historical and mnemonic, roots and haunts us at the same time. Choreographed for two male dancers on an original score by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin (played on stage by the Smith Quartet) with sound design by Leafcutter John, the piece opens with Sooraj Subramaniam and Shailesh Bahoran slowly entering the stage wrapped together in an orange silk sari. The account of their own family stories of migration can be heard in the background. The sari that ties the dancers together is like the fabric of histories and memories that weave shared pasts across times and places. It is the fabric that binds cultural, social and individual identities, the material with which each of us has to deal. It is ‘the continuous thread’ — as Marcel Proust writes — ‘through which selfhood is sewn into the fabric of a lifetime’s experience’.

As they unwrap themselves from the sari and release it, Subramaniam and Bahoran display their different bodies and responses to the fabric of the past that links them. Tall and elegant, Subramaniam is trained in the classical bharatanatyam tradition. He is bare foot, and wears traditional make-up and jewelry. Shorter and slighter, wearing shoes and knee pads, Bahoran exudes tense physicality: he is a hip-hop dancer. These differences are indicative of the distinct styles of dance and modes of performing that Material Men bring together. Bharatanatyam is a highly formal dance that has been transmitted and refined across the centuries; hip-hop comes from street performance and a subversive mixing of influences from rock to Afro-American dance. Jeyasingh’s choreography seamlessly weaves these two types of dance into a complex tapestry of patterns that seems to follow an intersecting of symmetries and asymmetries as she elaborates the quintessentially distilled and minutely precise movements of bharatanatyam with the hybrid dynamics of hip-hop. Hence, hands and feet positions are mirrored and at the same time fractured, extended and taken in new directions as one dancer responds to the other in a physical dialogue that constantly draws upon a canopy of contrasting movements from which transpire no less conflicting feelings and emotions. Joy, tenderness, antagonism and suppressed rage intersect as limbs and gestural patterns crisscross. Subramaniam and Bahoran may be said to encounter in each other the stranger that according to Julia Kristeva we all carry within us and which forms us from histories of psychic, cultural and historical migration. The dancers variously accommodate and contend with each other, and with the ‘stranger’ that each of them reflects back to the other.

From this encounter, visual and figurative forms emerge and disappear and in-between, in the interstices between sequences, moments of stillness are perceptible, as if they were ‘formless’ spaces, gaps saturated with possibilities and contradictions. It is in such dynamic flow of movement and stillness, of tension between form and formlessness that the transcultural features of the piece become palpable. Like the pleats with which Subramaniam carefully folds the sari, the layers are many and complex. Labels such as classical and pop, traditional and contemporary are reductive for what is a reconfiguration of the significance of dance movement as a medium that conveys the deeply embodied affect of cultural trajectories, backgrounds and individual histories. The work and the quest within it, however, are never nostalgic. The cultural allusions proper to bharatanatyam and hip-hop are conducive to the present, to the highly individualized interpretation that the dancers and choreographer confer on them by generating new synergies, overlapping rhythms and gestures. The piece concludes in a slow sequence in which Subramaniam and Bahoran move sideways off stage, one next to other, the arms parallel to the floor, half squatting. The movement feels endless as if melting into infinity, as if harmony and balance between pasts and presents, histories and memories were possible. As if continuity and reciprocity were not estranged by inner or outer boundaries.

Jeyasingh’s Material Men is a thought-provoking work. And Subramaniam and Bahoran are both superb performers.

c.a.


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.’