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.”

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.