Who knew surgery could be so… sexy? Not me. But Sadhana Dance’s new trio Under My Skin, based on observations of operations, turns out to be a surprisingly erotic piece. Artistic director Subathra Subramaniam, aided and abetted by the aptly-named Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College, had gone to watch surgeons at work and came away with a sense of the choreography of the operating theatre: the centrality of the body, the precision of action and manipulation, the comings and goings, the anticipations, the improvisations. And the intimacy.
Under My Skin begins with a blood-red bloom of light and a poem (by Allen Fisher) about platelets, those microscopic cell fragments that make blood clot. It sounds clinical, but doesn’t feel it. Meltingly voiced by Chris Fogg in honeyed tones that throb with wonder and desire, the verses recount a ‘coagulation cascade’ of platelets coming together in states of increasing arousal until they start seeping sticky glycoprotein, leading to a rush of thrombin release. Phwoar.
I don’t mean that in a Carry On Nurse kind of way. Under My Skin is subtle, sensual. The prologue sees the three dancers – Archana Ballal, Gemma Bass-Williams and Carl Patrick – enter one by one along rows of light, like lab technicians striding purposefully down corridors. Gradually their paths overlap as they build up little gestural motifs (think of filling test tubes, tapping syringes, palpating pipettes) to a beguilingly efficient soundtrack of blips and gurgles. So far, so ER. But the drama that unfolds is nothing to do with characters, it’s all about bodily activity, sensation and sensitivity.
There’s a section where Ballal simply stands on the spot, bending deep on the exhale and stretching high on the inhale, her whole torso a ballooning monitor for her breath. Bass-Williams and Patrick orbit her in a soft, coiling duet in which they trace the line of a vein down each other’s arms, or cup limbs against hands, slip against each other’s surfaces. We intuitively sense both the body’s exterior – the sweeps and strokes of the duet – and its interior: Ballal’s hypnotic breathing.
Another section sees all three standing around a column of light, so that we see just their hands. And their hands dance beautifully. We can tell that the gestures derive from slicing, stitching, probing, swabbing – all the functional armoury of surgery. But watching it as movement, we see delicacy, precision, tenderness, responsiveness, care. It’s both a physical experience and an emotional one. And, of course, a sensual one. When Ballal reaches down into a pool of light, it might look reminiscent of surgery – implements probing beneath the skin – but it feels as soft as fingers parting flesh.
The articulation of the hands is paramount in Under My Skin, and it’s no surprise to discover that Subramaniam is bharatanatyam-trained. Nevertheless, this is not bharatanatyam performance. To be sure, one section is almost textbook bharatanatyam, and throughout you can certainly see the influence of the style not just in the hands but in many of the sequences, steps and rhythms. But only one of the dancers (Ballal) is bharatanatyam-trained, and much of the quality of the dancing comes from the imprint of the classical style on a much freer interplay with weight and breath: falls and catches, sweeps, runs, leans. That is apt for this piece: it combines the classical qualities of precision and procedure with a more intimate sense of touch, responsivity and trust.
Subramaniam can build whole sections from just a few basic elements, and enliven coherence with variety. Only near the end does the piece sag a little: the rhythmic bharatanatyam sequence is somewhat overextended, and though the music (by Kathy Hinde and Matthew Olden) is as gorgeously textured as ever, its repeated swells of volume and density for each section become more predictable by the end. But those are quibbles: this is an enchanting and very unexpected dance, and you won’t think of surgery in the same way again.
Accompanying the performances, incidentally, are a number of demonstrations, workshops and talks about the craft of surgery. The ones I went to (a comparison of tailoring and surgery, and a post-show panel) were fascinating. And I can reveal that Professor Kneebone also has a funnybone.