Diaspora Dialogues trigger — hesitancies

Vikram Iyengar (Ranan) blog

From RananThursday, November 11, 2010
10 November 2010

Kicking off the Ignite Festival at Kamani Auditorium yesterday evening, Anusha Lall – Festival Director – put things in perspective. Ignite, she said, was a festival centred on contemporary ‘Indian’ dance – both by artists from within India and abroad. All the artists and performances engage with Indian-ness in a variety of ways: either experimenting with traditional forms, or forging connections with other cultures/countries or – as in the case of Shobana Jeyasingh (though this is not the only thread that draws her in) – working with Asian/Indian experience in a different culture, drawing on forms both remembered and found.

Shobana Jeyasingh is a dance icon in the UK. And unfortunately, though I lived there for three years, I was in Wales – far away from the dance circuit that her company moves in. So never had the opportunity to see her work. But hear about it constantly, I did. And this is her first tour to India since she set up her company in 1988. By training she is a Bharatnatyam dancer, who moved from Chennai to London. But her work situates itself squarely in a very different socio-cultural and political experience. The double bill we were witness to yesterday – Faultline and Bruise Blood – are both inspired by extremely unusual – even harsh – triggers for dance as we in India would see it.

Triggers: this is the first thing that struck me about her work when Anusha contacted me last month asking me to lead a conversation with Shobana Jeyasingh after the performance (a couple of hours from now actually). Her starting points for both pieces are Asian/Otherness experiences in so-called multicultural societies. Faultline is a response to Gautam Malkani's vivid portrayal of disaffected British youth” in his novel Londonstani. Bruise Blood has as it’s starting a point a line taken from the testimony of a wrongly arrested Black man during race riots: ‘I had to open up the bruise and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them…’. Both very strong impulses for any sort of performance.

Secondly – form. Watching her work, I was struck by the seamlessness of the choreography and the ease with which it was performed – the former a credit to how she constructs work, and the latter a credit to her brilliant ensemble of 8 dancers. The work is remarkably physical and must be exhausting to perform. It’s rough, raw, edgy – perhaps the themes demand it – and involves an enormous amount of physical contact and supporting of each other’s weight, but not at all in the display sort of way that Ballet would perform it. Here, one gets more of a sense of disturbing and potentially dangerous encounters between physical beings and mental attitudes. Woven in are sudden snatches of Bharatnatyam phrases – but again not performed as ‘Hey, look I can do Bharatnatyam too’ (which is often the case in a lot of crossover dance) – but as an integral part of a movement pattern that tries to express an extreme of suffocated desperation. There is constant conflict in the breathless pace of both pieces – conflict and challenge, the dancers somehow conveying a feeling of existing on the edge of a precipice. Would violence erupt if they were given another push, or would they set their teeth and give in to their lot? Though speaking to a Delhi-based performance director after the show, he did say he had seen far more violent performance work including dance on these themes: he in fact referred to these performances as comparatively “polite”. Not having seen the others, I can’t comment.

Having seen a lot of contemporary dance where the content and it’s relation to the resulting form are both too abstract or obscure for me to grasp, the obvious relationship between the impulses and performance here were fascinating. The three male performers who led Faultline were impeccable – and the punctuations of poses and posing of young men in dead-end situations spoke volumes even about disaffected youth we see in our own cities let alone the UK. Personally, I felt more connected to this piece than Faultline – both due to the content, perhaps, and the fact that the form – I felt – worked better (or expressed the essential content better?) than in Bruise Blood. The latter, to me, took some time to get off the ground, so to speak.

Lastly – and very quickly since I have to leave – the music. The soundscape for both pieces is absolutely astonishing. Shobana Jeyasingh’s choice of music – a soaring live and recorded soprano for Faultline and a percussive, Black street music feel Beatboxing for Bruise Blood (again performed live) – would fill pages of analysis in itself. Both the choices are so specifically made and feed the dance so much (and vice versa). This to is so different from my limited experience of contemporary dance where often I have felt the music incidental to the movement and performance – something that Indian classical dancers have a very hard time conceiving or appreciating. In fact, another comment I heard was that the music was stronger than the dance. But I’ll leave that in the air as a provocation!

Yesterday’s experience throws up so many questions about Shobana Jeyasingh’s creative and thought process – both intellectually and in the studio with the dancers. I hope to have some of them addressed by her today in the very short time we have to converse with her. It’ll be up on the blog tomorrow!

Posted by Ranan at 9:02 AM
Labels: Ignite Festival of Contemporary Dance, Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company


Anonymous said...
Thanks a well written piece – i felt i was there viewing the performance. siri rama – singapore
November 11, 2010 10:37 AM

Ranan said...
Thanks. More to come over the next couple of days. Watch this space!!!

SECOND DAY AT IGNITE – 11 November 2010

Began the morning by sitting in on a ridiculously short masterclass by Shobana Jeyasingh and her company – a mere 90 minutes while ideally it should have been at least double that. Not surprising then that the session was a bit tepid and structured more as a ‘have a taste’ kind of teaching workshop than a masterclass… Didn’t really get to enter or engage with any questions of creative process or impulse that the company work with. In fact, an observer observed (!) to me that, considering this was her first visit to India, she would have expected the session – short as it was – to be structured keeping in mind the culturally different but also deeply connected histories.

We did try to address some of these in the conversation with Shobana later at Max Mueller Bhavan. The conversation was moderated by Jyoti Argade (scholar, lecturer, and producer from London) and myself. But this too was painfully short – 45 minutes, though we dragged it to about an hour. That was just enough to touch on some of the issues surrounding Shobana’s work process, impulses, and contribution to dance in the UK but not enough to probe or provoke a deeper, more thoughtful and enlightening discussion. I spoke to some people after the conversation, and there were several unresolved issues on the one hand and also unsettling questions for the choreographer on the other. Several people echoed my own hesitancies about the company – wowed as I was by the sheer physicality and technique of their work – and such conversations should provide space to respectfully bring up some of these. It’s not just an opportunity to hear the choreographer out and applaud, but also to give her honest and constructive audience feedback – something I gained tremendously from at the ‘Meet the Director’ session at the NSD festival in January this year. Something for Gati to keep in mind for next time.