It is no coincidence that Shobana Jeyasingh chose the biology of plants to underpin the twenty-fifth anniversary of her choreographic debut and the birth of her company. The programme at Queen Elizabeth Hall included her first work, Configurations, as well as the world première of Strange Blooms. If the latter is the flowering of her artistic development, her bold collaboration with Michael Nyman in 1988 that became Configurations illustrates the clarity of the process by which she achieved it. Dylan Thomas used the metaphor of a‘force that through the green fuse drives the flower,’ and there is a very real sense in both works of Jeyasingh’s rich, fertile imagination driving the creative process towards fulfilment. Her initial use of the traditional bharatanatyam dance form has broadened – she spoke candidly in the question and answer session following the performance about feeling “over-defined at the beginning by race and culture” – but she remains focused on generating meaning in dance without recourse to stories. Her materials are space, time and the bodies of her dancers; her process is one of consummate design.
The members of the Benyounes Quartet sit patiently in the shadows before the start of Configurations. They will be playing Nyman’s String Quartet No. 2 which itself is based on a rhythmic score in six sections that Jeyasingh had prepared as a brief for the composer. Such close artistic collaboration is key to the unity of purpose in each work. Lucy Carter’s lighting design projects a series of rectangles on to the floor that change pattern in rhythm with the music and create pathways for the four arching, spiralling dancers whose steps are so precisely choreographed to the music that they are as much human instruments as they are indefatigable interpreters. Two years ago Jeyasingh reworked the choreography. “I wanted to say the same thing but find a simpler way to say it.” It is this economy of means and her painterly use of space that give the music such a rich visual quality that is further enhanced by Ursula Bombshell’s costumes in reds and orange. The dancers never falter as they carry the lyrical forms, beauty, patterns and colour – even a moment of deadpan humour – through to the work’s conclusion.
A similar organic line is at work in Strange Blooms, not only as the basis of its design but in the subject matter itself. It is organised in four sections based on different aspects of plant biology: the first on the way tendrils curl and swirl in their frenzied search for support; the second on the algorithms of branching; the third on cellular instabilities within plants that help them to move; and the fourth about hybridity or cross-breeding. From the very first moment these eight strange blooms unfold before our eyes as if we are looking through a microscope or at a time-lapse film, with Guy Hoare’s patterns of light reminiscent of Rothko in fauve colours suffusing the choreographic development. Graphic projections are not easy to get right in a dance context, but Jan Urbanowski’s laser-like etchings of plant forms play beautifully on the dancers’ bodies while Fabrice Serafino’s costumes subtly harmonise gender and reveal the dance. One can still see the low plié of bharatanatyam but the dance vocabulary belongs more with the urgency of natural forms than with any particular style.
If Strange Blooms reveals the hidden life of plants, Gabriel Prokofiev’s score simulates the process in music. By dissecting a recording by Jane Chapman of Louis Couperin’s harpsichord piece, Chaconne la Complaignante, Prokofiev lays bare its mysterious internal processes before putting it all back together again in pristine form. Like the design of Strange Blooms, it is a remarkable journey that reminds us of the richness hidden in the depths of life. As Jeyasingh says, “Choreography is a way of revealing what is already there.”