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.