Donald Hutera reflects on how Jiva Parthipan’s work seeks to define the two key figures of our era: the refugee and the terrorist.
According to his website, Jiva Parthipan is trying to ‘attempt to make sense of the world around him by framing, reframing, negotiating and then renegotiating with every life situation.’ The result has been pieces like ‘Necessary Journey’ (a wonderfully low-tech monologue documenting his methodical efforts to overcome the multi-national bureaucracy that prevented him from taking up a creative residency in North America), ‘Terror of Living’ (a personal – and portable – consideration of current political perceptions featuring a variety of props, including a gas cooker, that can all be carried in a rucksack) plus a couple of short but striking films for Amnesty International.
Parthipan’s continuing capacity for survivalist reinvention is just as impressive as his growing body of work. Now 34, he arrived in the UK after fleeing his native Sri Lanka alone at age 16. Once more or less settled here he eventually embarked on training as an engineer. Two years later, however, having ditched that career goal and subsequent plans to take up accountancy, Parthipan found his calling in the arts. The initial focus was on bharatanatyam, a form he studied in Walthamstow with the dance-drama teacher Pathmini Gunaseelan. His ensuing career trajectory – encompassing time spent under the tutelage of Pushkala Gopal and Unikrishnan, membership in the summertime youth dance company Yuva, becoming a dancer in education and majoring in dance in the BA Performing Arts programme at Middlesex – all helped lead him to a lucky break as the first male dancer in Shobana Jeyasingh’s company. Lasting four years, this professional relationship put Parthipan on the UK dance map. “It was a leap for both of us,” he admits, “because at first she didn’t know how to incorporate me into her work”. It’s worth noting that one of the national dance critics referred to him as an ‘intruder in the hive.’
Since leaving Jeyasingh’s troupe in 2003 Parthipan has been one busy bee. “I needed to try different things to discover what it was that I wanted to do,” he comments, adding that dance, particularly in its contemporary manifestations, “just wasn’t enough for me. I had to find a way back into it on my own terms.” Earning an MA in Performance (Distinction) from Goldsmiths College was a boon. Nor did he quite throw the kinetic baby out with the bathwater. One of Parthipan’s most comic and certainly controversial incarnations in a post-Jeyasingh universe was as the sole touring member of the Al Qaeda State Ballet. Sporting a tulle hijab, this manic little whirlwind of a dancer made ‘her’ debut at the London alternative cabaret mainstay Duckie on the first Saturday after the invasion of Iraq. “It had a huge meaning at the time,” Parthipan remarks. The AQSB went on to rack up dozens of appearances in the UK and abroad in locations as diverse as comedy clubs and squat parties. On the 25th anniversary of Dance Umbrella, while many of the big guns of this country’s dance community were attending a festival gala at Sadler’s Wells, Parthipan was in Brixton issuing a tongue-in-cheek fatwa against “Western decadent pattern-making masquerading as contemporary dance.”
He has gradually acquired a reputation for making outrageous or agitprop material. “I’ve always been political,” he claims, “probably because I was born and grew up in Sri Lanka. Being gay might’ve played a part too. If you have to fend for yourself when you’re 16, like I did, then you start thinking. Your status is ambiguous if you arrive somewhere as a stateless person. Essentially it boils down to how the individual negotiates with the power of the nation state.” Little wonder that his ongoing interests include channelling his artistic energies into defining two key figures of our era, the refugee (an autobiographical role) and the terrorist.
Parthipan now lives in Birmingham, a move he explains as “a way of asserting a new identity. It was also an affordable place from which to tour.” He functions with exceptional economy and independence, having no manager (although this could change) and needing no technicians or fellow performers to present his work. “I’m not precious about what I do,” he avows. “I can perform in lots of different places and contexts, and even have a drink before the show.” The hardest thing, he admits, is having “no buffer between me and the world. I spend too much time doing admin, and I’ve made some boo-boos.”
About the work itself Parthipan seems to have more confidence. “Each piece has its own logic and meaning,” he says, “even if it’s like starting from zero each time. Maybe I’ll never stick to one thing.” He remains adaptable in terms of how he connects with audiences, whether via dance, video or spoken text interventions. Sheer versatility can render the work hard to pigeonhole. It’s occasionally been shown in the context of that slippery adjunct of alternative performance work dubbed live art. “In England this is a useful terminology,” he acknowledges, ‘because there’s a touring circuit for live art here, but if I put myself in that category I’m immediately cutting off from performing in other places. And sometimes I’m told that it’s not quite this or that.”
Parthipan has nonetheless received welcome exposure through the likes of Birmingham’s Fierce! festival, the Warwick Arts Centre in Coventry and Glasgow’s Tramway and The Tate Modern, not to mention on the Continent. He has also performed at a BBC Regional Managers Conference, for the TUC and on the political art circuit. Word of mouth has generally been good. “People say it’s important work,” he says, adding in a tone of wonder, “there are some who travel cross-country just to see me.” Among his champions and influences are Mark Ball, artistic director of Fierce!; Anna Furse at Goldsmiths; Janet O’Shea, an American research fellow in dance at UCLA whom Parthipan met while on a Lisa Ullman scholarship in Sri Lanka; dancer-choreographer Jonathan Burrows; and the legendary Mexican performance artist Guillermo GÓmez-Peña.
Asked to define himself and his work from a dance perspective, Parthipan says, “As a provocateur I’m trying to get people to think. I like to take the persona people project onto me and play with it. I’m already an outsider because I’m not Pakistani or Indian; being an outsider gives me the potential to do so many other things. People assume from the work that I’m doing something radical, or that I don’t like classical Indian dance. But I’m probably a traditionalist at heart. I’m interested in ritual, and in the way that dance is going back into temples but can also still be considered within a modern socio-cultural context. I can see now that dance is much bigger than I thought it was, but I’ve moved on from it. Or maybe I’ve just come full circle.”