Asian Music and Dance

Shobana Jeyasingh – Choreographic ‘New Worlds’

In the second of a three-part series marking twenty-five years of Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, Jeyasingh talks to Sanjoy Roy about some of the landmarks on her artistic journey – breaking away from rhythmic structures, pushing the hip out of line, androids from the film Blade Runner – and reflects on the achingly strange nature of choreography itself.

Sanjoy Roy: Last year you reworked your very first piece of choreography, Configurations (1988, to music by Michael Nyman). What were the changes you made, and why did you make them?

Shobana Jeyasingh: I think the biggest change is at that time I was very close to the dance-music relationship of bharatanatyam nritta and so relied very much on the musical structures. In classical bharatanatyam you respond to rhythm, you replicate it and play with it. In the recent version I allowed myself to be less dependent on the music. The penultimate movement, for example, was set in counts of nine over which there was another melody in eights. In the first version, one dancer was arranged on the eights, the others on the nines. In the recent version I changed that completely, so apart from occasionally using the nines as cues, the whole composition is much freer. And it’s not based on rhythm at all, but a physical idea: each dancer is trying to get closer to one dancer and away from another. So the choreographic interest was in the dancers’ decisions, and the flow was more organic than rhythmic. That was quite interesting itself, because they were still using bharatanatyam style, which I wouldn’t call ‘organic’. It is very constructed. On the other hand, the last section is still totally based on rhythm. I kept that in some sections, and relaxed it in others. 

The original Configurations looks quite constrained to me now. We were like slaves to the beat, and the body’s engagement with space was limited. Once I took away those constraints, I felt the body could have a spatial story as well as a rhythmic one. When the body follows the music so literally – and of course at the time I didn’t feel I was being literal, but with hindsight I think I was – there’s a sort of predictability, which has its own strength. Redoing the piece, I could play more with predictability and unpredictability, throwing the body out and reining it back in.

At the time, of course, Configurations wasn’t a constraint for you so much as a big step forwards. What was the importance of that step back then?

Back then, I reworked Configurations three times, first as a solo, then a trio, then a female quartet, which was the version that I felt I wanted. In that version, the women were all in navy blue, and the piece had a kind of functionality, stripped of ornamentation, with plain, minimal colours. And I had a lighting design of almost monochrome squares. Visually it was very stripped down. The dancers looked like a little army, attending to the music with incredible focus. Technically, they were all doing pure bharatanatyam, but the visual picture was very different and my eye was surprised by what I saw. I think that was the big step I took with Configurations. It was more visual than compositional. 

Was there a piece that marked another major turning-point?

I think Intimacies of a Third Order (1998) was an important step. Until then, I had struggled to create the dance text that I was happy with, to get the body to do things I wanted it to do. Changing the language of the body takes a long time, you know? Because in yourself you have patterns of movement, and you work with dancers of similar backgrounds and you’re kind of locked into habit. I was trying to crack this habit. For example, in Making of Maps (1992) the dancers were doing floor work. It was a little awkward – well, understandably, because none of us were used to it – but it was my attempt to try to disturb the classical language. 

With Intimacies I found a way to do that. Thanks to a dancer in my company, we learnt chhau dance, a form that has these wonderful figure-of-eight shapes through the spine. It’s very different from bharatanatyam, and I used it a lot in Intimacies. That also changed the composition. Vertical lines produce their own kind of composition, quite logical with an angular feeling. Whereas with curves, you have different ways of relating the body in space, curves that can interlock. It also uses the hips. In classical dance you always hold the hips straight. If the hips go out of line, it’s almost like a cardinal sin – you feel that you are letting the side down and not just in technique! 

So Intimacies became a very curvy piece, and I was surprised how much it gave the dancers such different personalities – it was hard to recognise some of them as the same people who had done Making of Maps.

Like most choreographers, you began as a dancer. Unlike most, who make a transition from performing to directing, you stopped dancing at the same time as you started choreographing. What happened in the leap from dancer to choreographer?

I began as a bharatanatyam dancer, and I think my interest had a lot to do with my sentiment towards India. I was born in India but also grew up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, so I was already an expat before I came to Britain. As a dancer, I had a great desire to know bharatanatyam as much as I could. It’s a difficult dance form, its technical features are not very accessible, and you have to work hard at it. I would never claim to be a great dancer, but I learnt what a good dancer could be. I could taste the ideal. 

When I started choreographing, my motivation was very different. It came more from my interest in contemporary art, in film and literature. It triggered a whole different part of my imagination. I never really wanted to be a classical choreographer; I wanted to do something about my own time and place, something contemporary. And there was something quite complicated and contradictory about being Indian in London – that’s what motivated some of my ideas.

At the beginning, I guess there was a gap between what I wanted and what I was able to realise –which probably confused a lot of people! I was working with classical dancers, but I didn’t want to make classical dance. So I was searching for dissatisfied classical dancers – and you can’t really audition for dissatisfaction! So at the beginning I think there was sometimes a mismatch between the dancers I was working with, what I wanted to do, and what people thought I was doing. 

And has this mismatch become more… aligned?

I think it’s better than it was! But you know the British Asian situation is a kind of misalignment anyway. I don’t think I’ll ever be perfectly aligned, because then I won’t know what I’ll be. So that element of something not quite working is maybe part of the context. Maybe I’ve just had several attempts at trying to express that misalignment. I’m sure I haven’t got there yet!

We’ve spoken mostly about Configurations and Intimacies. Were there other pieces that marked turning-points? 

Phantasmaton (2001) was one. I felt I was getting some objectivity in looking at Indian classical dance. It was very influenced by Blade Runner, one of my favourite films. One thing I found fascinating in the film was the idea that memory could be just a programme, an application that you put into an android. That’s strange and quite disturbing to people like myself who are displaced people, because memory is so important in one’s makeup: your memories are from far away, but they are very much part of your identity, the only tie that you have to bridge the geographical or cultural distance. In Blade Runner, the android Rachael picks up a photo and says: that’s my mother. But her memory is just an app. Which means that her history is a construct. In one way it makes you feel depthless; in another it makes you feel completely free. One of my favourite images from Blade Runner is this giant screen showing an advertisement featuring a Japanese lady. I found it very evocative, this woman in her classical Japanese kimono in a futuristic world. The digital bharatanatyam dancer in Phantasmaton owes much to her. She is a constructed presence. 

A lot of the tasks we used to create Phantasmaton came from the idea of hybrids, like the centaurs or mermaids of classical mythology. And I was thinking that a mermaid is really quite a modern idea, a kind of genetically-engineered being. So then we thought about modern hybrids, what kind of hybrids we would create. The Blade Runner androids were hybrids that seemed to erase the boundary between the artificial and the organic – an idea that I took into the studio to generate movement.

Are there any pieces that you feel really achieved your goal?

TooMortal is one of the few pieces which I will not be rewriting! Usually I am more aware of what I didn’t manage to do. TooMortal was quite a gamble, though. It was set in a church, so there was a lot beyond your control: the architecture, the pews, people’s attitudes towards the church. I did wonder if I was going to be totally compromised by all of that before I had even started work on the piece. But the casting worked so smoothly and the six dancers were perfect for that piece. I was also very lucky with my collaborators in lighting and music. And right from the beginning I looked at the nave and thought: the dancers are not going to get out of those pews. So I knew by instinct what to explore – and it was a real discovery to see how much you could do inside those pews. The other good thing about TooMortal was not having to transfer from studio to theatre, which is the most vulnerable time in theatre production. You spend two months in a space that looks nothing like where it’s going to end up; it’s like working in the dark. Then when you get to the theatre, you have to change so many things. 

We’ve spoken mostly about choreography. What about your dancers? What do you look for in them?

On a very physical level, I tend to make work that’s quite impactful, where body and space are in some tension. For that you need dancers who are happy not releasing energy but holding on to it and using that tautness within the body. Dancers who are happy to explore speed, tension, and slightly artificial ways of moving. So they need to be physically quite robust. I also like dancers who are interested in ideas and in task-orientated work where everybody generates something together. I think I also get on with dancers who have more than one dance language, because it opens up more possibilities. So I tend to attract dancers with quite complicated hinterlands. I’ve had American dancers who do bharatanatyam, Indian dancers who don’t do any bharatanatyam, Spanish dancers who might do ballet and flamenco. I find these complexities interesting. 

There was one kind of dancer that you didn’t have in your company for a long time: a man. Why was that?

The company started off all-female by an accident of history. It wasn’t a decision not to work with men; there are just many more female bharatanatyam dancers. At the same time, I found an all-female company gave me a certain leeway with abstraction and stylisation. If you have a single gender they can represent anyone, whereas if you have male and female it’s very difficult to stop people reading those two bodies as anything but male and female. 

The first male dancer I had was Jiva Parthipan, for Surface Tension (1999). However, I did not need to change the material, the process or the politics of the dance work to accommodate him as a man. Then in 2001 I had Mavin Khoo for Phantasmaton, and he was there because of his androgynous porosity as a dancer who inhabited both ballet and bharatanatyam … and more pertinently the space between them. I don’t make movements to gender; it’s not been my interest. Sometimes it’s a style issue, though. For example, when I did TooMortal (2012) in a church, and Counterpoint (2010) in the courtyard of Somerset House, I knew that I wanted female dancers. I felt that these logical buildings with lots of angles needed the more ambiguous landscape of the female body. So that was really a judgement on shape, not gender.

Curiously, the way you talk about TooMortal reminds me a little of Configurations, which you said was very constrained by the rhythm. Whereas TooMortal is very constrained by the space of the pews. And in both pieces you feel the weight of history; one in the church architecture, the other in the classical dance style. 

Yes, that is interesting. I was once at a research talk where a woman said that the most difficult thing in the creative act is to set the limits. Limits are necessary as a stimulus, because the stage is just this blank space with so many ways of writing on it that the choice is bewildering. But if the limits are too rigid they can kill the creation, and if they’re not strong enough it becomes flabby. So maybe the key is how you balance constraint and freedom. 

But choreography is a slippery occupation. It’s not like theatre directing, where you generally arrive with a script. In choreography you make the script as you go along. Sometimes you don’t even know who the characters are, but in making a script with your particular mix of dancers, something begins to emerge. But at the end, you can never hold up a manuscript and say: this is mine. Every bit of the script you create is lodged in other people’s physiques, and you might not know where they are or if you’ll see them again. Choreography, the design and composition of moving bodies, is like writing on water: a miracle, but achingly ephemeral.



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