Sadhana Dance: Under My Skin

Posted: November 11th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Sadhana Dance: Under My Skin

Sadhana Dance, Under My Skin, The Place, October 18


Archana Ballal, Gemma Bass-Williams and Carl Pattrick in Under My Skin (photo: Marc Pepperall)

Archana Ballal, Gemma Bass-Williams and Carl Pattrick in Under My Skin (photo: Marc Pepperall)

What we wish for sometimes manifests in ways that are as unpredictable as they are inexorable. Choreographer Subathra Subramaniam wanted first to be a doctor but found her expression in the classical Indian dance tradition of Bharatanatyam. Her latest work, Under My Skin, returns to her first love, which gives the title a certain ambiguity: it refers not only to what happens to a patient undergoing surgery but also to an emotional attachment that is hard to shake off, as in the Cole Porter song, I’ve Got You Under My Skin. Subramaniam’s involvement is both: undoubtedly passionate in transforming surgery into choreographic form, she also demonstrates a vicarious curiosity in the operating theatre through a program of simulations, craft demonstrations and haptics that precedes the performance.

Enter Dr. Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College London, whose mission to disseminate a greater understanding of surgical procedures dovetailed seamlessly with Subramaniam’s research into Under My Skin and gives it a rich context. There is evidently no pain in Subramaniam’s work, nor the emotion of dealing with the balance of life and death — something that even the surgical simulations bring affectingly to the surface. Her skill is in extracting the beauty of the movement from the operating theatre and in interpreting the essential trust that is a perquisite for any surgical procedure. In doing so, she not only expands the boundaries of Bharatanatyam but provides Professor Kneebone with an expressive medium to further his own research.

Through the surgical simulations (staged at The Place as part of the Bloomsbury Festival) we begin to understand the critical importance of close and accurate communication within a team of specialists providing an acute level of care for a patient undergoing surgery. This will involve the surgeon, at least one assistant surgeon, a scrub nurse, an anaesthetist, and an OTP (operating theatre practitioner). Sometimes the team will meet each other for the first time around the operating table, but they must work meticulously and intimately on matters of vital importance to the patient. In the course of her research for Under My Skin, Subramaniam witnessed this teamwork as an observer, and although there are only three dancers in her work, their relationship to one another is as tightly choreographed as that of the operating theatre team.

As in other works of Subramaniam there is text, here a poem about the nature of blood by Allen Fisher, whom Professor Kneebone commissioned. Its clinically precise language takes on a sense of mystery in the recording of  Chris Fogg’s sonorous voice emanating from the dark. The reading of the opening lines is superimposed on a single red light like a drop of blood under a microscope to the sound of baffles, plungers and artificial breathing apparatus, the beginning of a parallel collaboration between lighting designer Aideen Malone and sound artists Kathy Hinde and Matthew Olden.

Malone also observed the operating theatre environment (and as a consequence has been asked to propose improvements to the lighting system). Her three rectangular corridors of light form distinct environments for the three medical personnel (Gemma Bass-Williams, Archana Ballal and Carl Pattrick) in blue surgical scrubs (assimilated by Kate Rigby) who adjust imaginary controls and instruments with minute accuracy and concentration: three routines that develop freely and beautifully into extended dance movement. Ballal is clearly at home with the flow of Bharatanatyam that underlies the choreography — especially in her solo to the violin of Preetha Narayanan — and adapts the gestures of the operating theatre as if putting on a pair of latex gloves. Bass-Williams and Pattrick, while clearly immersed in the style, work towards the flow of Bharatanatyam from the task-based material. What unites the three dancers is the clarity and precision of their gestures.

As the trio merges into the central corridor of light, Malone expands it into one large theatre in which the trio breathes with the breath of an imaginary patient preparing for an operation. Taking the weight of, supporting and balancing each other’s body are all metaphors for the mutual dependency of the team.

Bass-Williams and Pattrick abstract the meticulous washing of hands and the precise order of gowning into a ritual dance. Malone’s lighting moves like a film from one scene to another; in the light at one moment is Ballal in a dynamic dance while in the semi-darkness the surgeons continue their preparation, a solo of life superimposed on a duet of support. The dance vocabulary immerses itself increasingly in the current of Bharatanatyam; Bass-Williams and Pattrick join Ballal in a trio of rhythmic turning steps accented with the deep plié and completed by the rich arm and hand mudras.

The focus is narrowed to a circle of yellow light in which we see — as if we are in the team — just the hands the colour of latex taking and placing instruments, sharing actions, cutting, stitching, checking, swabbing, and cleaning in a silent, concentrated rhythm. Subramaniam once again transforms these gestures away from the operating theatre into the performing theatre, adapting the ability of Bharatanatyam to tell stories through gesture and dance. One aspect that is less developed here is the traditional use of the face as an expressive instrument, especially the eyes. The dancers look at each other, but their eyes are not always eloquent.

An acceleration in the music returns us to Bharatanatyam’s rapid, rhythmic footwork; the influence of Indian classical dance is strongest here and the dancers are stripped down to their essential natures. This is the pleasure of movement where flow is everything; it feels like a coda of growing complexity and technical achievement, but Subramaniam returns us once again to the routine operating theatre where poetry is supplanted by the sounds of the machines, the broad wash of light by a circle of yellow light and dancing by a silent concentration on gestures of intimacy and healing. Pattrick finishes his task and leaves. Bass-Williams and Ballal stay on to accompany the patient’s recovery, then Bass-Williams hands over to Ballal whose head is bathed in the opening blood-red circle of light. She withdraws her head as Fogg’s voice intones the final lines, ending neatly with, “This is blood clotting that will help to save your life.”

Subathra Subramaniam

Posted: October 8th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Interview | Tags: | Comments Off on Subathra Subramaniam
Subathra Subramaniam   photo: Simon Richardson

Subathra Subramaniam photo: Simon Richardson

This interview, commissioned by Pulse Magazine, was published in its September edition. It is reprinted here with the editor’s kind permission. 

Like two tributaries that feed into a great river, Subathra Subramaniam’s paths of science and dance feed into the work she has been creating since she started Sadhana Dance in 2009. She has danced since the age of seven when she was still living in Malaysia and later found her guru – Prakash Yadagudde – in 1988 at the Bhavan Centre after her family had moved to London. Dance in the classical form of bharatanatyam was always her passion but she never considered dance as a career. Subramaniam wanted to be a doctor.

While studying medical biochemistry at King’s College, London, she continued to dance with Shri Prakash and it was there she met Mayuri Boonham with whom she was to form Angika Dance in 1997. Following her degree, she spent two years dancing with various companies but the current of science flowed continuously and in the early years of Angika she studied for a PGCE to become a science teacher and taught science in secondary schools for five years. When Angika became successful, however, something had to give and it was the teaching. The company continued until it was folded in 2008 but the work Subramaniam co-created in that decade – deeply rooted in the bharatanatyam form but based on a desire to push its boundaries from within its own aesthetic tradition – honed the formal basis of her dance style.

After the break, Subramaniam knew that she still wanted to work within the form, but to make dance that was fundamentally important to her, something that would answer the essential question: why do I make dance? It was at this point that the two streams of her life fused: she began to make work that reflected the way the world works based on scientific concepts that asked questions to make us think.

Sadhana derives from the Sanskrit word for the pursuit of a spiritual goal, combining perfection of execution with study and reflection. Subramaniam’s methodology has evolved accordingly, employing rigorous research, immersing her dancers in the subject and finding new ways to generate appropriate movement material. Her first work, The Shiver, was born out of her experiences on five expeditions to the Arctic with Cape Farewell, an organization that parallels Subramaniam’s goals in bringing scientists and artists together to look at the environmental impact of human activity. Her first expedition was in 2003 and she subsequently undertook the role of co-director of educational activities for the organization. When she later met Lemn Sissay, who had made a radio documentary called The Shiver — and whom she subsequently commissioned to write the text for her piece — she discovered he, too, had been on a Cape Farewell expedition. She spent a year as artist-in-residence at the Environment Institute at University College, London, and a period of time observing the activities of the NGO, WaterAid, in India before creating Elixir, and her latest work, Under My Skin, entailed months of research working with surgeon Roger Kneebone both in the studio and on simulations of surgical operations, and spending two days in the operating theatre observing not only the actions of the surgical team but the relationship of trust between the surgeon, the anaesthetist, the scrub nurse, the assistants and the patient. ‘I am capturing their movements in dance, not simply describing what happens in an operating theatre… I feel I am starting to find a movement language that engages with subjects like surgery without being too literal and without being so abstract as to distill down the concept to a point where it is unrecognizable. Under My Skin is a way in to the subject, not the subject itself.’

She insists she is not trying to teach: ‘I don’t want dance to be educational; I want to create good work, interesting work, work that people can enjoy aesthetically’, though she insists that ‘dance has a role to play in the public engagement of science’. To prove the point, Under My Skin was the first dance performance presented at the Cheltenham Science Festival and she presented Elixir in Sofia, Bulgaria, to a sold-out audience that was interested primarily in the science.

Subramaniam surrounds herself with a team of collaborators with whom she has built up a relationship of trust over the last three productions: Kathy Hinde and Matthew Olden on music and projections, Kate Rigby on costumes and Aideen Malone on lighting design. She feels fortunate as not only do they all understand her aims, but, as she says, ‘good art comes from good collaborations’. Another part of her team with whom Subramaniam shares a special relationship is Quentin Cooper, her husband, whose interests closely correspond to her own. He is best known as the presenter of Radio 4’s former science program, The Material World, but was at one time a film critic and a reviewer of dance and puppetry for The Stage before he produced Kaleidoscope, the BBC Radio 4 program for arts and science. He and Subramaniam met at the launch of a Cape Farewell voyage at the Royal Society for the promotion of Arts. Cooper often chairs the post-show talk – called appropriately a Café Scientifique – at Sadhana Dance performances, stimulating discussion of both dance and science with characteristic enthusiasm.

Subramaniam is currently working on the early stages of a new piece as part of The Place’s Choreodrome project. Her research will involve spending an extended period of time working with psychiatrists, neuroscientists, therapists and patients at the Child and Adolescent Unit at the Maudsley Hospital in London. She was recently in the studio at The Place exploring the bharatanatyam form ‘to see if it has another way into tackling the subject in terms of its abhinaya, or expressive element’. This parallel way of creating dance allows her to channel all her experience into each work. ‘If you just want to come and see the dance, that’s what I am passionate about: making dance and making dance work. But I am equally passionate about making dance on science-related subjects.’

Under My Skin will be performed at The Hat Factory on October 15 at 7:30pm, and at The Place on Friday 18 and Saturday 19 October at 8pm with a Café Scientifique and a series of events around the theme of surgery and the arts. Under My Skin is also touring in the spring of 2014. For more details visit Sadhana Dance.




South Asian Dance Summit

Posted: June 1st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

South Asian Dance Summit, Pavilion Dance, May 17-18

Seeta Patel and Kamala Deva

The Art of Defining Me   photo: Peter Schiazza

The purpose of the 24-hour South Asian Dance Summit presented by Pavilion Dance South West and Asian Arts Agency was to demystify South Asian dance for presenters and producers by allowing them to get up close and personal with the traditional form and contemporary developments. What the summit achieved was to take South Asian dance out of its cultural, indigenous box and to put it on display as a communicative art. Paradoxically, it was seeing Seeta Patel interpreting Marvin Khoo’s Bharatanatyam solo, Dancing My Siva — with all its cultural associations — that put the entire summit in perspective. Here was a classical dance form with its unmistakable sophistication in gesture and rhythm that has been developing for hundreds of years; the way Patel danced it communicated effortlessly a beauty and an excitement that was timeless. At the same time the performance contextualised the efforts by other summit choreographers to derive a contemporary form.

Of the full-length works, Subathra Subramaniam’s Under My Skin takes gesture from another kind of theatre (that of the operating room) as its inspiration in her challenge to ‘the traditional boundaries between clinical practice and dance’. Where Subramanian dips in to the Bharatnatyam form becomes a point of self-identification, a vestige of a glorious past that has nevertheless embraced the present. In his latest work, Power Games, Shane Shambhu adopts the gestures of the trading floor in his comic-strip style story of the rise and fall of a market trader and in Erhebung, Mayuri Boonham marries the sculptural form of the body with a rigid sculptural framework by Jeff Lowe, resulting in a meditative play of movement against stillness, of ripe fruit on a tree.

The summit also presented ChoreoLAB2, a series of shorter works that are still in development. Subramaniam takes her inspiration for a solo from observations of mental illness; in Breathe, Ash Mukherjee crashes deliriously into the traditional form to see what remains; Anusha Subramanyam retains the humanity of the narrative form to depict the humanity of Aung San Suu Kyi and finally Seeta Patel and Kamala Devam play devil’s advocate in a short film called The Art of Defining Me. It raises impertinent yet pertinent questions for audiences and presenters alike, for while it thumbs its nose at cultural claustrophobia and narrow mindedness (as does Seeta Patel’s series of vignettes, What is Indian Enough?), its light-hearted approach effectively transforms our perceptions.

The summit organisers were keen to provide ample opportunities for dialogue between artists and presenters and to cross-reference the dance with other practices. In the lobby of Subramaniam’s Under My Skin were a bespoke tailor, Joshua Byrne, and the surgeon Professor Roger Kneebone (Subramaniam’s collaborator on the project), both of whom demonstrated their respective forms of hand gesture. What the summit showed is thus a broad, interrelated universe of creative expression showing not only the origins but also the new directions of the traditional form. We should not be impatient; we do not have the time to see the development of these forms over the next hundred years, but both past and future exist in the present moment, and that is where the summit unequivocally placed us.