Asian Music and Dance

Shane Shambhu – Meeting of Head and Heart

A serious explorer to take bharatanatyam into the uncharted territory of social comment, Shane Shambhu is a dancer-actor to look out for. He has a deep and genuine commitment to developing a movement language to tell gritty stories of today’s urban realities. He shares his journey thus far with Donald Hutera.

A quiet flame burns inside Shane Shambhu. All of the work that this classically-trained dancer, choreographic innovator and natural-born actor does is fuelled by a deep desire to connect with his audience. “I want to know that they’ve been moved or taken on a journey,” he explains with uncloying earnestness, “and hope that as they walk away they can reflect on the experience they’ve just had.” 

 We’re sitting in a relatively rare burst of sunshine outside The Pleasance Dome in Edinburgh. It’s August during festival time, the one month each year when this normally strait-laced city lets down its hair and undergoes a sustained invasion of creative activity. Shane has been performing here in Release, a scripted drama-with-movement about a trio of people adjusting to life outside the prison system. This hard-hitting production by the Kent-based Icon Theatre picked up a Fringe First, along with several four-star reviews; it was also shortlisted for Amnesty International’s Freedom of Expression gong. 

Credit for the show’s impact has to be shared with Shane, who was remarkably good in three contrasting roles as an uptight ex-offender with a simmering temper, a gentle overseas student with a background in bharatanatyam and a florist who aims to treat all his employees fairly. What’s more, the casting made sense especially in terms of the student character. Why? Because although Shane is unduly modest about his artistic gifts, dancing is one of the things from which he derives the most pleasure in life. 

“…every time I danced I felt like I was myself”.

He started his training at the age of eleven. “I was quite a chubby little kid,” he recalls, “and so my mum sent me to bharatanatyam classes to lose weight.” Although Shane was born in London’s East End and grew up with a younger brother in East Ham, his parents hail from Kerala. “In addition to the exercise and weight loss, they felt that I could do with learning Indian cultural traditions and Hindu religious stories.”

Shane was in good hands with the likes of Pushkala Gopal and Unnikrishnan of Mudralaya as his teachers. During this period he had the additional advantage of learning bharatanatyam from an array of other notable gurus (including the Dhananjayans and Adayar K. Lakshmanan) as well as receiving initial training in kathakali (from Sadanam Balakrishnan and Periyanampetta Divakaran). “After attending the first couple of classes I just fell in love with dancing. I loved the focus involved, and that every time I danced I felt like I was myself.”

It was just before his Rangapravesham, or graduation ceremony, in 1994 that Shane realised how much he longed to pursue a career in dance and, more specifically, choreography. He’d been on tour both as an observer and a performer with Pushakala and Unnikrishnan’s company, Akshaya Dance Theatre. “This experience very much triggered the drive for me to want to create my own dance work in the future,” says Shane. His parents, however, had other ideas. In short, he says, “They denied me the choice of going to study dance formally.”

Although he turned his attentions to, in turn, engineering, applied mathematics and business information studies, Shane simply wasn’t the academic type. As he freely admits, “I didn’t understand these subjects at all.” He left university without having graduated and spent a year on the dole, eventually landing an office job. But clearly his mind was elsewhere. “During office hours I found myself scribbling down dance sequences,” he confesses. “It got to the point where I just had to make the bold decision to leave my job and follow what I believed I should be doing.” 

Having performed traditional bharatanatyam at various community festivals and shopping malls, Shane seized virtually any and every opportunity offered to him. He received additional training in bharatanatyam from Mavin Khoo, for whom he danced on tour in the UK. “Working with Mavin I gained a greater clarity and understanding of precision and technique,” Shane reflects. “But during that time I began to question if there isn’t more to dance than technique.”

“Working with Shobana I gained a huge insight into …the unknown world of contemporary dance.”

Shane’s next big career move exerted an even more profound influence. In 2003 he successfully auditioned for the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company and stayed there for close to four years, participating in the creation of several dances. “Working with Shobana I gained a huge insight into what was then to me the unknown world of contemporary dance. I also learnt how to create abstract work, and what’s needed to make a full production in terms of lighting, set and so on.”

But, once again, the questions kicked in. “After a while I began to realise that for me there was something missing – I wanted a more emotional involvement with the movement. It was at this point that I decided to leave the company and try and develop a language of my own.” 

“I wanted a more emotional involvement with the movement.”

The learning curve continued both during and after Shane’s sojourn with Shobana. By now he’d encountered ballet and Graham, Cunningham and Release techniques, and worked with such groups as Wardrobe Dance Theatre and inDance. He also found time to join the Vayu Naidu Company. “Working with Vayu Naidu and director Chris Banfield opened up a conceptual way of approaching a narrative structure. The experience also tapped into my comedic side, which I still haven’t explored fully.”

Nevertheless Shane’s theatrical interests and instincts were about to be developed much further. After participating in Quick!, Nina Rajarani’s 2006 Place Prize-winning dance for her company Srishti, he was cast as the brilliant mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan in A Disappearing Number. This hit production by Simon McBurney’s highly-esteemed theatre company Complicité premiered at the Barbican in 2007 and subsequently scooped up several ‘Best Play’ awards. Shane toured with it internationally and featured in its adaptation as a drama for Radio 3. 

“Working as an actor in Complicité… unleashed a wealth of knowledge that I’d forgotten I had.”

For Shane the collaboration with Complicité on such a high-profile show couldn’t have happened at a better time. “The process of working with Simon, although very difficult, slowly transformed my dancer’s way of thinking to that of an actor. I was just beginning to explore the narrative elements of bharatanatyam, trying to find pathways to bring forward the abhinaya aspect of it in my work. Working as an actor in Complicité, this is quite clearly what I was drawing upon. It unleashed a wealth of knowledge that I’d forgotten I had.” 

It’s no surprise, then, that McBurney is one of the artists who most inspire Shane. The others he names are James Thiérrée, Philippe Genty and Philipp BŌe, all of them deeply tied to a brand of theatre that uses movement and visuals as vivid, daring tools to expand minds and unlock imaginations. But how does that fit into what Shane as a committed artist wants to achieve?

“The reason I continue is to learn more about body, form and different ways to express emotions and tell stories. My aspiration is to continue to use bharatanatyam to create work that will be seen by as many people as possible. I want to change the understanding of what bharatanatyam, or even South Asian in general dance, is. To me it’s a more holistic approach to performance or, to some extent, a ‘total theatre’ that offers training in acting, dancing, rhythm and music/poetry.

‘He calls what he does ‘visual theatre rooted in Indian dance’.

“I’ve seen a lot of dance and theatre,” Shane continues. “I believe the work I’ve created has something new to offer both worlds. It’s using a traditional dance form in a really accessible way.” He calls what he does “visual theatre rooted in Indian dance”.

Shane is buzzing with ideas and plans. In the past he’s crafted such works as India Calling (about call centres in the context of the global economy), Impermanence (a deconstruction of Hindu mythology and Buddhist philosophy) and Bound (about the frustrations of railway travel). Produced by Time Won’t Wait, his new, full-length touring show Leaving Only a Trace is about “how memory makes us who we are, and letting go of the past in order to come to terms with the future”. Supported by Southeast Dance he’s also preparing for next year Power Games, a quartet motivated by his belief that “we live in a democratic society but I don’t think we have any kind of power”.

“What I want to say will change with each work I do,” Shane says. Still, he recognises his own consistencies. “That I’m of dual heritage means that my work addresses cultural identity. This subject matter will intrinsically be part of the movement language used in anything I create. However, I don’t want to just address cultural identity but instead reflect on issues that affect everyone with a universal approach that can provoke conversation.”

 Shane has been artist-in-residence at Derby Dance Centre, Leicester Haymarket Theatre and an associate artist with Dance 4, Nottingham. Tamasha Theatre also selected him as a director for their Design-Direct programme. But success, he says, isn’t his focus. “Success, for me, is to remain employed. Being an artist is a constant struggle to draw out your own voice. The struggle doesn’t have to be negative. I constantly find myself battling to find out who we are as humans and what the purpose of our existence is. In this way I can say something about the world we live in. I find it easier to talk about the world through my body as I feel I’m being the most honest with what I want to say.”



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