Ian Abbott on Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring at The Place

Posted: May 29th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring at The Place

The Rite of Spring – reimagined by Seeta Patel, The Place, May 18

Seeta Patel Rite of Spring
The six dancers in Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

Last Summer at Tanzmesse I saw an eight-minute excerpt of Seeta Patel’s reimagining of The Rite of Spring; nine months later I’m here at The Place to see how it has grown. Patel is presenting the completed work with six dancers alongside two shorter and complimentary works that establish the relationship between western classical music and group bharatantyam choreography. Celine Lepicard ably performs Bach’s cello suite 1 and a seven-minute group bharatanatyam and contemporary dance choreographed by Patel on alumna from the National Youth Dance Company and Kadam Dance readies the eye and ear palette for what is to come.

There have been over 200 choreographic attempts at matching Stravinsky’s score since it premiered in 1913; it’s a choreographic equivalent of scaling Everest or circumnavigating the globe — there’s a psychology in a certain type of person to see if they’re able to endure, match and conquer it whilst marking their own place in dance history. (Having only seen Marie Chouinard’s version at the Attakkaalari India Biennial in 2017 I do not have Rite fatigue).

At the moment there’s at least two other versions circulating in the UK: Jeanguy Saintus’s interpretation for Phoenix Dance Theatre and Yang Liping’s version but Patel’s is the first time in 106 years that bharatanatyam has been used. As a side note, when I listen to Rite I cannot avoid thinking about how the musical thief John Williams appropriated a number of the key Stravinsky/Rite passages, so even you’ve not heard Stravinsky’s version in full, you’re likely to have heard Williams’ lift in Star Wars (The Dune Sea of Tatooine).   

With Ash Mukhurjee, Indu Panday, Kamala Devam, Moritz Zavan, Sarah Gasser and Sooraj Subramaniam as the dancers, Patel has brought together the Avengers of classical and contemporary bharatanatyam; this suite of highly skilled performers deals with and executes the choreographic complexity demanded of them with a finesse and grace that makes visual music. The score envelops the auditorium and although it is played too loud, distorting slightly, you feel it surrounding you; the music is in you as you attempt to take in all the visual information. The dancers are pin sharp, have been rehearsed exceptionally and deliver thunderous synchronised foot work; it’s one body echoed across six as they duet with the weight of history and the music. One of the most impressive aspects is how the dancers travel; they gobble up the width of the stage with ease; if you were to trace the dancers on a Strava map they’d have covered miles by the end of the work. 

The visual composition, anatomical layering and choreographic cannon is satisfying and demonstrates for the first time that bharatanatyam can be a group dance form; imagine a miniature corps de bharatanatyam. If the dancers are the Avengers then Patel is Nick Fury — the architect of this work bringing together the finest dancers from across Europe but with Patel’s ambition and skill they level up again, combining to deliver a work that marks a shift in the UK bharatanatyam ecology. This Rite of Spring is begging for a bigger stage, with double/treble the dancers and live orchestral accompaniment and could easily tour internationally for the next five years.   

Devam, Subramaniam and Mukhurjee leave the eyes tired after darting in between where we spend our attention. Patel’s composition delivers wave after wave, and it’s a relentless first half that is unforgiving in its attack. The second half wanes a little in impact as The Sacrifice demands an alternate energy and concentration but it is still a joy to watch and a welcome addition to the choreographic canon. Cyril W. Beaumont — a British book dealer, balletomane, and dance historian — saw each and every one of Nijinsky’s performances in the Ballet Russes’ 1913 London season (which included Nijinsky’s original Rite of Spring) and said: “The chief attraction for the season was to be Nijinsky, presented as a strange, exotic being who could dance like a god. His slanting eyes and his finely-chiselled lips were to be emphasized with grease-paint; his roles were to be of the most unusual type.”  

There is a relationship that warrants further exploration around new classicism and the exoticisation of how Nijinsky was written about and presented, what Patel has done with her re-imagining and how it has been written about in terms of ‘otherness’.

Dance is always presented in a context and Patel’s context needs wider acknowledgement. She is performing and touring in Not Today’s Yesterday, a contemporary solo work co-authored and choreographed with Lina Limosani; she developed in partnership with Gandini Juggling an award-winning work Sigma in which she’s a central pillar; she has co-developed The Natya Project with Shane Shambhu and Magdelene Gorringe — a training programme for younger bharatanatyam dancers in response to the lack of dancers in the profession — and she is still creating/touring her own classical evening of works. If she were male with a name like Khan, McGregor or Shechter she’d have her own choreographic centre, be heralded as a UK pioneer with regular funding to match. 


Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring

Posted: May 20th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring

Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring, The Place, May 17

Seeta Patel Rite of Spring
Sooraj Subramaniam in Seeta Patel’s Rite of Spring (photo: Joe Armitage)

In 1913, when Vaslav Nijinsky was starting to choreograph a new work by the young composer Igor Stravinsky, Serge Diaghilev hired a eurythmics student, Marie Rambert, to assist his protégé with counting the score. The new ballet was The Rite of Spring which famously premiered in Paris in May of that year. After a mere eight performances, Nijinsky’s choreography was lost for almost 70 years until Millicent Hodson painstakingly reconstructed it for the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, but since the latter half of the twentieth century Stravinsky’s celebrated score has become a rite of passage for choreographers eager to challenge the rich complexity of its musical structure. Seeta Patel is the latest to tackle the score but she is perhaps one of the first to formulate her response through the Indian classical dance form of Bharatanatyam. It’s a revelation. 

Patel is known for her exquisite solo work but she has also devoted her considerable artistic intelligence to dealing with issues of identity that affect her as an artist and Bharatanatyam as a traditional dance form, from her film with Kamala Devam, The Art of Defining Me, to her dark cultural fable created with Lina Limosani, Not Today’s Yesterday. While her work remains firmly anchored in the Bharatanatyam technique, she has also begun to explore collaborations with complementary art forms, notably in Sigma with Gandini Juggling where her mastery of both rhythm and gesture complement the mathematical precision of the jugglers. In the process she is subtly moving Bharatanatyam away from its original context to reinvent it in a contemporary idiom. This process has reached a new level of maturity in her re-imagining of The Rite of Spring; everything she has struggled to achieve has come to fruition.  

Patel approached what she calls ‘this beast of a score’ by studying Stravinsky’s rhythms with pianist Julien Kottukapilly which she then translated into a carnatic vocabulary with which her dancers could identify. This attention to a score until it becomes embodied — similar to the way Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker approaches her work — is to enter into the music by the same door as the composer; only then is it possible to deliver a response that is true to its structure. To see Patel’s choreography is to hear The Rite of Spring in a new cross-cultural perspective.

The original score is subtitled ‘Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts’, a scenario devised by Nicholas Roerich who also designed the original costumes and scenery. Patel initially follows Roerich’s outline; in the first part, she writes, ‘the excitement is palpable, the dancers still youthful and full of hope, being pushed and pulled by the energy around them.’ The energy is in the music and Patel opens up a dynamic spatial world within it by defining geometric pathways for her dancers. From the opening languorous poses that pay homage to Nijinsky’s faun she builds up the suggestion of a community waking up and setting out into the fields in a spirit of worship. Using Bharatanatyam’s vocabulary of complex rhythmical coordination punctuated by eloquent hand gestures, facial expressions and precise percussive footwork her six dancers — Ash Mukherjee, Indu Panday, Kamala Devam, Moritz Zavan, Sarah Gasser and Sooraj Subramaniam — make the intricacy of the musical textures and rhythms visible while maintaining their ritual allusions. 

Separating the two parts of the score with a brief vocalised interlude, Patel then inverts Roerich’s idea of the Chosen One as sacrificial victim; it is the community who chooses a leader to whom they cede their autonomous power. The tall, imposing Subramaniam is deified, wrapped in blood-red trappings and at the score’s final chord of sacrificial exhaustion he is the one remaining upright spiralling slowly into his trailing adornments as the community crouches behind him in his shadow. 

The setting for this re-imagining is a bare white stage with a white backdrop; the element of scenery is subsumed in Warren Letton ’s subtle washes of colour and in the luminous silk costumes and elaborate makeup of Jason Cheriyan and Anshu Arora. So closely do all the elements of this creation align with the music that it appears effortless; whatever orchestral forces Stravinsky throws at her, Patel transforms them into a field of light. 

The evening begins with Patel’s Dance Dialogues, a short choreographic conversation between six young performers trained in either Bharatanatyam or contemporary dance. The music is by Talvin Singh with live accompaniment by cellist Celine Lepicard who bridges the two choreographic works with a recital of Bach’s first cello suite. 


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.