Shobana Jeyasingh is arguably one of the most significant voices to have emerged from South Asian dance in the UK. Her journey, which began in 1988 when she collaborated with composer Michael Nyman for Configurations, has continued over two and a half decades of unrelenting exploration, creativity and output. Sanjoy Roy has followed Jeyasingh since the first performance of Configurations and, in the Company’s silver jubilee year, picks up the story at the re-making of the first work, and charts the steps in-between.
This is the first of a three-part series which celebrates the choreographer and her solid body of work which will surely inspire generations to come.
It was familiar, but also strange. Or perhaps it was just strangely familiar? The music sounded the same, the sequence and structure chimed true to memory, but when the dancers of Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company stepped onto the Linbury Theatre stage in March 2012 to perform her 1988 work Configurations, the piece was definitely… different. It wasn’t just the dancers (now with two men, instead of an all-woman group), or the costumes (red skirts all round instead of blue bharatanatyam outfits), or even the atmospheric lighting (by Jeyasingh’s now regular designer Lucy Carter). No, it was the dance itself. Where the original piece was constructed entirely from recognisable classical bharatanatyam sequences, each cued exactly to the musical rhythm, this version also included variations of those steps and poses, with the torso swerving into curves or the legs flicking out at angles, and with rhythms that intersected rather than matched the music. There were also newly-minted moves such as turns on the knee, and actions as ordinary as standing or walking. And the crystalline spatial geometries that had dominated the work in 1988 were now transfigured into more plastic figures of curves and cross-currents, carrying a greater emotional charge. Configurations? It might as well have been called Reconfigurations.
Reviewing the 2012 performance, Guardian dance critic Judith Mackrell described it as ‘one of those works whose elements combine with complete inevitability – and complete surprise’. And the strange thing about that observation was not only the paradox of inevitability with surprise, but also that the 1988 version, though different in so many ways, seemed equally inevitable – and equally surprising. In fact, that sense of double vision, of seeing something simultaneously logical and unforeseeable, seems true of Jeyasingh’s career as a whole. So with the company’s 25th anniversary coming up in 2013, it seems a timely moment to loop back from Configurations 2012 to Configurations 1988, and retrace her coherent yet unpredictable career back to the present.
Jeyasingh founded her company in London in 1988, after performing for several years as a bharatanatyam dancer. Born in Madras (Chennai), she had trained in bharatanatyam as a child, arriving in the UK in 1981 to take a Masters degree in Shakespearean studies. Afterwards, she began performing as a bharatanatyam soloist, but grew restless not only with the standard touring circuit for South Asian dance but also with the classical form itself. A key moment came when she balked at the idea of a photographer taking a backstage portrait of her in full temple-dancer costume, drinking a can of Coke. On reflection, she realised that the encounter of the classical with the commercial, or the traditional with the contemporary, need not be seen as disparate fields or clashing forces. In fact, they were impossible to separate – part and parcel of both her past and her present.
It was at this juncture that Jeyasingh met British systems-based composer Michael Nyman, who had been much taken by the rhythmic permutations of carnatic music after seeing one of her performances; and it was a logical step for Jeyasingh to commission a score from him. That became Nyman’s String Quartet No. 2, and Jeyasingh made a solo to it, Miniatures, which she soon expanded into a female trio called Configurations. (In 1992 she reconfigured it again as a female quartet.) It was her first company piece, and set the pattern for her early cycle of works. And of course, it combined inevitability with surprise.
One surprise was that once Jeyasingh began choreographing, she stopped dancing (it’s far more common for dancers to continue performing for some time after they begin creating works). But as early as Configurations, it was clear that Jeyasingh’s incisive and enduring feeling for composition – for framing and structure – was the product of an outsider eye, the vantage point of a director rather than a performer. It was that compositional eye that gave Configurations its quality of inevitability, principally through the coherence of dance and musical rhythm. Jeyasingh had given Nyman a ‘score’ of the dance counts, and he had worked to those timings. The result: a strict correspondence between notes and steps. Jeyasingh used the standard classical sequences of bharatanatyam and shaped them into kaleidoscopic, crystalline patterns while Nyman scored his music as repeated loops and rhythmic layers; musical time and stage space appeared as mathematical refractions of each other. The combination of a modern string quartet with bharatanatyam dancers was certainly startling, but it was clearly not arbitrary; in fact, it was axiomatic to the workings of the piece.
That is an important point. Many people at the time (and to some extent to this day) formulated Jeyasingh’s innovation as ‘setting Indian dance to Western music’, on the basis of the brute fact that it used Indian dance and Western music. And although a number of dancer/choreographers who came in her wake did exactly this, Jeyasingh was doing something altogether more artful, both more surprising and more logical: working out a choreographic idea through her material. Think of it like this: a temple dancer figuring out a maths problem while drinking Coke is not setting out to cross East with West or fuse old and new, the spiritual and the material – she’s figuring out a maths problem.
Maths, in fact, was key to Jeyasingh’s earliest works. Her next piece, Correspondences (1990) was inspired by the life of a mathematician, Srinivasan Ramanujan; while Late (1991) played with notions of time – human time, clockwork time. In these pieces, and in Byzantium (1991), Jeyasingh’s language was above all the nritta aspect of bharatanatyam – its formal, non-narrative elements – which she dissected and decomposed as if stripping away its embellishments before reassembling it into her own geometries.
With Making of Maps (1992) and especially Romance with Footnotes (1993) she began to roam, keeping bharatanatyam as a basis, but allowing her dancers to be much more exploratory, especially in the upper body. Such departures from her home ground of bharatanatyam were still tentative, but opened up new horizons. Audiences loved Romance with Footnotes for its lyrical freedom underpinned by a foundation of classical technique, but it was more like a holiday from home than a voyage into the future.
An altogether more abrasive work became the game-changer for Jeyasingh. Raid (1994) was based on the sport kabaddi, the choreography setting up two ‘teams’ – dance and sport – and having them raid each other’s territories. If the piece itself seemed incomplete, it had an important result: from then on, bharatanatyam remained a major player for Jeyasingh, but it was no longer always in the top spot, the reference point that she would depart from and return to.
Raid enabled Jeyasingh to establish her own choreographic voice, to place herself, and not bharatanatyam, at the centre of her dance world. So she set out to explore its horizons, to see what she would discover. The 1996 Palimpsest was wilder and more wilful than anything she had produced before, but nevertheless tightly constructed, its underlying idea once again indicated in the title. A palimpsest is a manuscript, which has been overwritten by another text; here Jeyasingh mixed layers of movement writing. Several different movement sources appeared – martial arts, nritta, abhinaya (the expressive, dramatic aspect of classical bharatanatyam), and naturalistic gesture – but shaped in more composite, variegated and overlapping phrases than in Raid. Her new daring found further expression in Intimacies of a Third Order (1998), its intrusive stage designs forcing the dancers away from centre stage, and its jarring, jagged style. She raised the bar again in Fine Frenzy (1999), ratcheting up the speed and complexity of her phrasing, the dancers incorporating rapid-fire shifts in style and pace, which, with Django Bates’ bustling jazz score, evoked the turbulence and stimulation of modern life.
After Surface Tension (2000), in which a spiky, brittle dynamic was smoothed into a flow of motion, image and sound, Jeyasingh was struck with a potentially career-ending illness, a rare and apparently arbitrary auto-immune condition that paralysed both legs. For a year, she could scarcely walk. Nevertheless, she recovered fully, and her return to the stage in 2002 with Phantasmaton showed, if anything, a redoubled force. Phantasmaton was her most complex staging to date, featuring digital film projection, a broken-up set design and a soprano singer on stage. She had used a male dancer for Fine Frenzy as part of the ensemble, but here she worked with dancer Mavin Khoo for the first time, deploying his exceptional technical ability and glassy sexual ambiguity to great effect. Jeyasingh’s previous works had displayed a bracing sense of freedom and discovery, but with Phantasmaton a new element appeared in her work: a sense of disquiet, of restlessness and rootlessness.
Unsettledness and indeterminacy characterised several of her pieces over the next decade. Flicker (2005) was a fractious work set against pixellated film and static-electric sounds, full of jump-cuts and non-sequiturs. Exit No Exit (2006) portrayed a double world of dancing and domesticity from which one agitated spirit (Rathimalar Govindarajoo) keeps trying, and failing, to escape. Faultline (2007), a direct descendant of Phantasmaton that also featured film projection and soprano singer, was another haunted, wandering work, this time focused on urban youth, its tightly-knotted dance phrases given taunting, slangy inflections: finger flicks, attitudinous poses, swaggers and flinches. Bruise Blood (2009) was also combative, its opening series of assertive ‘statements’ by each of the dancers gradually becoming cut up and dissipated into a flow of action, composition and design, as if their separate identities were being subsumed into a larger flux. Dev Kahan Hai? (2012) turned on irresolution; its hinge the figure of a woman awaiting a lover, her unrequited gestures refracted and reflected by a sharp chorus of inscrutable hipsters in chic designer outfits and shades.
Alongside her theatre choreography, Jeyasingh has developed another important line of work: site-specific performance. In works such as [h]Interland (2003, Greenwich Dance Agency), Foliage Chorus (2004, Arts Depot), 2Step (2008, St Paul’s Cathedral steps) and especially Counterpoint (2010, Somerset House) and TooMortal (2012, performed in a variety of old churches), she treated the sites not as backdrops or settings, but as players that not only frame the work but participate in it. Counterpoint staged a playful invasion of Somerset House by an Amazonian battalion of women in blazing red, as if its pristine fountained courtyard were being flooded with foreign life-blood. TooMortal fathomed the depths of the human soul as five mortally-coiled women plied and plunged among wooden pews; the church nave acting both as a vital wellspring of symbolism and an impervious, implacable edifice of wood and stone.
TooMortal was one of Jeyasingh’s most directly emotional pieces, which is to say: not directly expressive. Indeed, one of the constants through Jeyasingh’s journey – from the early investigations into style and substance, through becoming unmoored from bharatanatyam to wander more wilfully, to chart her own trajectory – is her marked preference to show rather than tell: to indicate the frame for an action, to repeat a pattern so that its workings are revealed, to define the form of a phrase while leaving its meaning unidentified. In other words, to show us configurations rather than give us messages. It’s why, even at her most dramatic or declamatory, she characteristically shows formal devices and tropes at play, proceeds by visual analogy or kinetic metaphor rather than ‘acting out’ her theme, so that we never get a single, straightforward vision of what is happening.
In fact, we often get a double vision. It’s the effect produced when, for example, you see something that looks simultaneously inevitable and surprising, and it is a quintessential Jeyasingh quality: to show the frame as well as the figure; the form as well as the feeling; the disciplined as well as the errant. Her twenty-five years of choreography suggest a double vision too: look back from the vantage point of the present and you can discern rhyme and reason in every step, a logic in both her choices and her chances. But look forward from the beginning, and you could never have predicted what was going to happen next, because her mind often seems one step ahead of her material, so it’s the audience (and sometimes the dancers) who are constantly playing catch-up. And why does that matter? Because in that process, Jeyasingh has configured and reconfigured not only her own work but also the dance landscape around her, changing what is possible in dance, and how we think about it.