Asian Music and Dance

Subathra Subramaniam – Dance Spokesperson for Science

This autumn, Sadhana Dance premières Under My Skin , in which the director choreographer Suba Subramaniam pushes further her vision of creating dance that de-mystifies science. The choreographer tells Nicholas Minns about the dual passions of dance and science that fire her creativity.

Like two tributaries that feed into a great river, Subathra Subramaniam’s paths of science and dance feed into the work she has been creating since she started Sadhana Dance in 2009. She has danced since the age of 7 when she was still living in Malaysia and later found her guru — Prakash Yadagudde — in 1988 at the Bhavan Centre after her family had moved to London. Dance in the classical form of bharatanatyam was always her passion but she never considered dance as a career. Subramaniam wanted to be a doctor. 

While studying medical biochemistry at King’s College, London, she continued to dance with Shri Prakash and it was there she met Mayuri Boonham with whom she was to form Angika Dance in 1997. Following her degree, she spent two years dancing with various companies but the current of science flowed continuously and in the early years of Angika she studied for a PGCE to become a science teacher and taught science in secondary schools for five years. When Angika became successful, however, something had to give and it was the teaching. The company continued until it was folded in 2008 but the work Subramaniam co-created in that decade — deeply rooted in the bharatanatyam form but based on a desire to push its boundaries from within its own aesthetic tradition — honed the formal basis of her dance style. 

“… make work that reflected the way the world works”.

After the break, Subramaniam knew that she still wanted to work within the form, but to make dance that was fundamentally important to her, something that would answer the essential question: why do I make dance? It was at this point that the two streams of her life fused: she began to make work that reflected the way the world works based on scientific concepts that asked questions to make us think. 

Sadhana derives from the Sanskrit word for the pursuit of a spiritual goal, combining perfection of execution with study and reflection. Subramaniam’s methodology has evolved accordingly, employing rigorous research over extended periods of time, immersing her dancers in the subject and finding new ways to generate appropriate movement material. Her first work, The Shiver, was born out of her experiences on five expeditions to the Arctic with Cape Farewell, an organisation that parallels Subramaniam’s goals in bringing scientists and artists together to look at the environmental impact of human activity. Her first expedition was in 2003 and she subsequently undertook the role of co-director of educational activities for the organisation. When she later met Lemn Sissay, who had made a radio documentary called The Shiver — and whom she subsequently commissioned to write the text for her piece — she discovered he, too, had been on a Cape Farewell expedition. She spent a year as artist-in-residence at the Environment Institute at University College, London, and a period of time observing the activities of the NGO, WaterAid, in India before creating Elixir, and her latest work, Under My Skin, entailed months of research working with surgeon Roger Kneebone both in the studio and on simulations of surgical operations, and spending two days in the operating theatre observing not only the actions of the surgical team but the relationship of trust between the surgeon, the anaesthetist, the scrub nurse, the assistants and the patient. “I am capturing their movements in dance, not simply describing what happens in an operating theatre… I feel I am starting to find a movement language that engages with subjects like surgery without being too literal and without being so abstract as to distil down the concept to a point where it is unrecognisable. Under My Skin is a way in to the subject, not the subject itself.”

“… months of research working with surgeon Roger Kneebone… on simulations of surgical operations”.

She insists she is not trying to teach: “I don’t want dance to be educational; I want to create good work, interesting work, work that people can enjoy aesthetically,” though she insists that “dance has a role to play in the public engagement of science.” To prove the point, Under My Skin was the first dance performance presented at the Cheltenham Science Festival and she presented Elixir in Sofia, Bulgaria, to a sold-out audience who were interested primarily in the science. 

Subramaniam surrounds herself with a team of collaborators with whom she has built up a relationship of trust over the last three productions: Kathy Hinde and Matthew Olden on music and projections, Kate Rigby on costumes and Aideen Malone on lighting design. She feels fortunate as not only do they all understand her aims, but, as she says, “good art comes from good collaborations.” Another part of her team with whom Subramaniam shares a special relationship is Quentin Cooper, her husband, whose interests closely correspond to her own. He is best known as the presenter of Radio 4’s former science programme, The Material World, but was at one time a film critic and a reviewer of dance and puppetry for The Stage before he produced Kaleidoscope, the BBC Radio 4 programme for arts and science. He and Subramaniam met at the launch of a Cape Farewell voyage at the Royal Society for the promotion of Arts. Cooper often chairs the post-show talk — called appropriately a Café Scientifique — at Sadhana Dance performances, stimulating discussion of both dance and science with characteristic enthusiasm. 

Subramaniam is currently working on the early stages of a new piece as part of Choreodrome at The Place. Her research will involve spending an extended period of time working with psychiatrists, neuroscientists, therapists and patients at the Child and Adolescent Unit at the Maudsley Hospital in London. She was recently in the studio at The Place exploring the bharatanatyam form “to see if it has another way into tackling the subject in terms of its abhinaya, or expressive element.” This parallel way of creating dance allows her to channel all her experience into each work. “If you just want to come and see the dance, that’s what I am passionate about: making dance and making dance work. But I am equally passionate about making dance on science-related subjects.”

Under My Skin will be touring this autumn and spring of 2014.



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