The Bharatanatyam dancer who is Britain’s sought-after choreographer

‘Counterpoint’ choreographer by Shobana Jeyasingh   | Photo Credit: Photo: SJD

Exactly a decade ago, Shobana Jeyasingh cooked up a storm in the British dance world with ‘Just add water?’, a never-before-heard blend of choreography and culinary choices. An incredibly brave creation, it dealt with how amidst the diversity of cultures in London, people loved integrating over food. The piece also seemed to symbolise Shobana’s hybrid vocabulary that opened up the possibilities of what dance could be.

Since she came up with her first piece ‘Configurations’ in 1989, Shobana has harnessed the movement’s power to tell unusual stories and, in the process, has turned notions about art on their head. Over the past 30 years, she has been establishing on stage an aesthetic world where realism and surrealism are never in contradiction. With her emotionally honest approach to choreography, she has produced more than 50 dance works that make the audience think, dream and dissent.

U.K.-based choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh

U.K.-based choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh   | Photo Credit: SJD

Born in Chennai and trained in Bharatanatyam, Shobana completed her formal education in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. She travelled to the U.K for her Masters in Shakespearean Studies and ended up finding her feet in the modern dance idiom. Beginning with a style defined by her Indian classical sensibilities, she arrived at a powerful and distinctive dance language. Like her, it is multi-rooted, with no trace of conflict of identity.

As her company, Shobana Jeyasingh Dance (SJD), marks its three-decade journey with Surface Tension, a series of podcasts featuring people who have been part of the SJD history, the 62-year-old choreographer is in no mood to take it easy. She has her work and travel scheduled for the next two years. Her new piece, Staging Schiele, inspired by the paintings and life of Austrian artist Egon Schiele is gearing up for its Autumn 2019 tour. Also, an opera based on Amba, a character from poet Karthika Nair’s book Until The Lions: Echoes From The Mahabharata will be premiered in 2020. She was in Bengaluru recently visiting her mother.

“Bengaluru today appears to be an endlessly moving urban hub; the engine of modern India,” she says during a conversation. This observation is in keeping with her experiences that are designed around time and space. Though a huge votary of change, she thinks transformation should take into account human foibles and feelings. She engages with change as much as history. And that’s how she makes her works thrum with life.

“Choreographers and architects have much in common. Their ideas emerge from a void. Aesthetically-built buildings, monuments and open spaces excite me. The challenge is to find your own stage in these alternative performance spaces, like the way I did in ‘Too Mortal’,” she explains.

For her much-applauded ‘Too Mortal’, Shobana chose historic churches (St. Mary’s, St. Pancras and St. Swithun’s) in London to trace the journey through birth, life and death. The setting was not just metaphoric; it spurred a visual imagery where the aisle and pews became as integral to the choreography as the six female dancers.

“When you take dance outdoors, you make the performance accessible to newer audiences. Where people don’t expect to see it, yet encounter it. For the artistes, it means evolving creatively; letting their imagination go beyond the restricted confines of the theatre. But care should be taken for the choreography to be site-specific; a part of the whole,” says Shobana, who cites her work ‘Counterpoint’ to establish her view.

Her dramatic designing of the piece brought into focus the architecture of the Neo-Classical courtyard of Somerset House in London, even while transforming it into a performance arena. The 20 dancers seamlessly worked around the 55 fountains in the enormous courtyard.

In 2Step, performed on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Shobana made the piece as inclusive as she could, with people walking around and travelling by bus getting to look at it.

‘Faultline’ choreographed by Shobana Jeyasingh

‘Faultline’ choreographed by Shobana Jeyasingh   | Photo Credit: Photo: SJD

“For choreographers, the starting point is their own body. You imagine the lines and patterns on yourself before getting the dancers to do them,” says Shobana about her choreographic process, an organic progression from one element to another.

She begins with the idea that ranges from the war dead, epidemic and science to human behaviour. Then, the structure takes shape. Her earliest works might show a stronger influence of her training in Bharatanatyam; now, it’s not easy to spot that. “I wanted to create a narrative through which I could tell a vast array of stories, so I moved beyond the Indian classical towards the contemporary. I was fully aware of the risk involved in entering an unknown terrain. But, that’s the adventure,” she points out.

Her choreographic design is now an amalgam of martial arts, multi-media, ballet, modern dance and simple pared down moves. Shobana also enjoys when the music is specially composed for every piece. So her important collaborators are composers, including Michael Nyman, Kevin Volans, Glyn Perrin and Django Bates.

The Bharatanatyam dancer who is Britain’s sought-after choreographer

“I even like the set to be up before the rehearsals because what works in a studio may not on the stage. Light makes an impact emotionally. It can change the way people respond to things. Costume designer Ursula Bombshell enhances the narrative with the right colour and cut.”

Though she does not forcefully introduce Bharatanatyam into her choreography, it’s intrinsic to her oeuvre. “Coordination and separation of movement, detail patterning of the body and azhuttam are all there when I am choreographing. I admire William Forsythe as much as Chandralekha and Kumudini Lakhia,” she says.

Even if some find her experiments with movements too unconventional, Shobana Jeyasingh refuses to categorise her art into templated boxes.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2021 8:26:16 PM |

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