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Shobana Jeyasingh: [h]Interland    

Catherine Hale explores Shobana Jeyasingh's deconstruction of space, time and place in [h]interland.

Shobana Jeyasingh’s [h]interland for Dance Umbrella 2002 was a significant departure from the pure dance style with which she has become associated. Going under the label of site-specific multimedia performance event, it had critics divided over whether or not the multiplicity of media involved detracted from the dance.

As Jeyasingh recounted, it was a combination of chance and daring that produced the unlikely bedfellows that made up [h]interland. Her allotment of the, to her, unprepossessing Greenwich Dance Agency by Dance Umbrella was a kind of perverse good fortune. Appearing to be less a stage than an assemblage of props and thoroughfares, the building prompted her bold reversal of stage and auditorium so the audience faced the theatre’s exit. Donnacha Dennehy’s commissioned score was an exhilarating, if challenging, cacophony of vocals without words and structure without melody or harmony. Pete Gomes’s films took us on a luridly tinted cruise through the cityscape of Bangalore, India, while just two dancers – the equally powerful Mavin Khoo and Sowmya Gopalan – roamed the makeshift stage.

Add in the third, virtual dancer, webcast into the GDA from a hotel rooftop in Bangalore and you might have been forgiven for fearing that too many cooks would spoil the broth. Especially a broth without a standard recipe – Jeyasingh’s only brief to her collaborators was to resist making a beginning, middle or an end.

A multimedia work that deconstructs the representational conventions of theatre, and avoids unified structure might seem glaringly postmodernist. However, writers like Sanjoy Roy have squarely placed Jeyasingh’s work within the modernist dance tradition. In fact, as an artist born in Madras and migrating to Britain via Sri Lanka and Malaysia, Jeyasingh’s relationship to the great ‘isms’ canonised by the West is one of ongoing tension. Deciding in which camp to situate [h]interland is not easy.

Cultural theorists like Homi Bhabha (1994) have pointed out that modernism and postmodernism are not value-free art historical labels. They are bound up with a Western, colonialist ideology of ‘modernity’: a concept of history as something done by the enlightened, dynamic West, to a passive, static Other in the colonising project.  Modernity grants agency – the power to act upon the world – to its own artist/citizens. And modernism in the arts is the capacity for abstraction from context; the creation of meaning from within the self, not from external referents. By modernity’s binary logic of Self and Other, the non-Western artist, on the other hand, does not truly create, lacking the individuality for self-abstraction, but merely reproduces the timeless ‘prehistorical’ cosmology of her culture. What is more, those cultural meanings are already usually predetermined by the Western artist-traveller’s colonial imaginings. In this sense, the postcolonial artist of today is denied individual self-expression and is ‘always already signified’.

This was Jeyasingh’s lot when she first began creating work and was told to make ‘colourful dances about arranged marriages, told entirely through hand gestures[…] To give voice to non-Western cultures or to oppressed minorities […] to be a social ambassador, but not just a choreographer’ (Jeyasingh 1995).

As Janet O’ Shea (1998) writes, Jeyasingh resisted this assignation by manipulating her ‘native’ dance language, bharata natyam, to confound Western audiences’ expectations of an ‘inscrutable but profound East’. By removing the vocabulary of the dance form from its narrative context and substituting its repertoire of mimetic facial expressions for a neutral gaze, works like Romance… with Footnotes (1993) ‘emphasise[d] formalism over dramatic expression and highlight[ed] abstract movement, spatial pathways and the arrangement of dancers in complex groupings’.

By presenting bharata natyam as an objective language transposed from its historical and social referents, Jeyasingh, earlier in her career, appealed to a notion of modern art as a self-referential enterprise outside social or political influences. Her modernism was – ironically – a political gesture, a bid to play on a level field with other contemporary dance artists. At least, that is how the story has been told (Roy 1997).

Jeyasingh’s admiration for the cool formalism of Merce Cunningham and Richard Alston, (exemplary modernists according to the canons set out by Greenberg for visual art in the 1950s (1)), has often been noted. But Jeyasingh, never one to be pigeonholed, feels uneasy about her characterisation as aspirant modernist.

  • Cunningham and Alston have an authenticity that I admire but would never aspire to. Their work has a wholesomeness that comes from the organic way in which it has evolved. They belong to an order, a lineage, a dialectic of questioning their past that began with classical ballet, through to Martha Graham. I never had a Graham before me to rebel against. I don’t have that sense of history. My position is more confusing and anarchic. My work is more restless.

    The [chronological] ordering of modernism and postmodernism is a tempting grid to take but I haven’t shared that slice of history. Although I can understand it, I see it from the outside.

    We [post-colonial artists] have always been postmodern, confronting issues of inauthenticity, since we had our sense of authenticity imposed from a place of power that was Other to us. Deconstruction was a way of life.(2)

Yet postmodernism, too, is a problematic label, proclaiming, as it does, the death of the author when artists like Jeyasingh have never been granted authorship in the first place. Where does that leave [h]interland? I would argue that the work still engages with modernity in Homi Bhabha’s sense, in that it articulates the spatial metaphors of centre and periphery that consign the postcolonial artist as non-modern. Rather than striving to enter the fortress of modernity, or retreating to an alternative holistic cultural tradition of ‘India’, [h]interland straddles the two universalising traditions, exploring the border zone between them as a literal and virtual space of potential power.  

Jeyasingh says that, at its most basic, [h]interland was about the ‘undoing of location’. It seems that this image of the border zone as a potential space of power and clear-sighted vision provides a powerful framework for her interrogations into location. The word play in the work’s title uses the geographical metaphors of ‘beyond’ and ‘between’ to question continuing power relations in our post-colonial context.

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Sitting on the stage and looking at te functional rear of the auditorium gave me a disquieting sense of needing to recreate a perspective for myself: a frame with a centre, edges and vanishing point. But Jeyasingh’s staging of this space confounded my attempts. The dispersal of the three screens on the balcony and below it defied any sense of symmetry or order. On one screen the webcast was already transmitting a hotel rooftop as we arrived, breaking the illusion of theatre as a contained space-time reality waiting for me, the audience, to bring it into being. The main floor area - the obvious ‘stage’ - was in darkness most of the time and my eye was lured beyond the doorway marked ‘EXIT’ into the brightly lit hallway with its tardis-like lift. It was a pleasing vista, promising transportation to an ever more remote beyond. (Mavin Khoo’s intricate sequence of pliés, taking him out into the lift, was one of the work’s most vivid images.) And yet, I was gazing not at a theatrical illusion but at the bricks and mortar that normally enclose it.

It seemed a metaphor for the disruption of a colonial gaze; the decentring of the privileged vantage point of the spectator. Was this what Jeyasingh intended?

  • I've always been interested in subverting theatre spaces, but of course, in a real theatre one does not have the luxury of doing it because the lighting rig would be in the wrong place.  I've always been fascinated by the wings and the edges in a theatre space.  It's partly because I was trained as a classical dancer so I've had an overdose of hierarchy with the soloists getting centre stage and the less important people remaining on the side. It’s a whole political aesthetic that choreographer and dancer take for granted in all kinds of classical space. And part of my questioning has always been the psychology of the border.

    The wings are where all sort of haphazard things happen - someone warming up, for example - and there’s this psychology of being about to go on; about to do something, rather than the perfectly resolved act of performance. I didn’t want a cute resolution of everything all happening at the same time.

    In some ways I thought of the whole of the GDA as one huge wings space. I’ve tried many times to put dancers in the wings, where the sidelights are, but as soon as you have a proscenium arch you can’t see the wings anyway. I saw the place as a collection of motorways, and the long, main thoroughfare for me was from the stage all the way to the lift. Arriving onstage is the most significant thing you can do as a dancer, but I immediately saw this space as a place to leave.

    This idea of the hinterland was about going out beyond the stage, but in one sense the hinterland was also the space that you saw, the stage itself. Bangalore was the other hinterland, but for Chitra we were the hinterland... And for the audience sitting on the stage, there was another sort of play: ‘What was the real space?Are we at the centre? And are we watching the wings?’ (3)

The cosy, global-village meeting of ‘here’ and ‘there’ that the webcast might have suggested was definitely subverted, as one might expect from Jeyasingh, who has long resisted the epithet ‘East-meets-West’. As well as decentring the ‘here’ she confounded any potential expectations of an India of ‘temples and Mogul arches’. Bangalore is the Silicon Valley of the Indian subcontinent. Webcasting Srishailan’s performance was not an act of bringing technological ‘progress’ to a virgin village. In fact, the volume of cybertraffic is so high there that Jeyasingh had trouble accessing wide band transmission facilities without interrupting global business. The hotel rooftop she found was designed in a sleek, Conran-influenced modernism that could have been anywhere. And Gomes’ films, journeying through Bangalore traffic, erased any literalist reference to place. Their artificial lime, tangerine and fuscia colouring evoked the virtual landscape of a video game.

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Khoo and Gopalas’s presence in [h]interland was intermittent; their dance phrases emergent rather than fully-formed, as though driven by a restless seeking. Their trajectory served to highlight the fragmentation of the GDA space – the remoteness between the floor and the balcony – and delineate its thoroughfares, rather than carving out its own architecture on a blank space, as dance usually does. Critic Judith Mackrell (2000) remarked that there was ‘too much disconnected activity’ and that ‘Without the choreographic patterning Jeyasingh does so well, the piece remains only a cluster of smart ideas.’ How did Jeyasingh answer to the charge?

  • Choreography for me is usually about dealing with the dance element but here I wanted to choreograph the lift [‘its closing doors had such a graceful flow’], and the balcony, and the webcast. It was choreography in a multimedia context, in somewhere other than the place one normally looks for it. For me the dance was more than in the bodies of the dancers; it was like directing a play, where dance was just one of the players.

    Normally when you choreograph in the studio you start with fragments that begin to make sense and by the time you leave the studio you have a dance narrative. But when we left the studio we had no narrative whatsoever. We left with uncomposed fragments. It was only when we got to Greenwich [one week before the opening night] that I assembled all the other elements.

    I didn’t know which element was going to be my guiding principle: would I take my hint from the dance, the webcast, the music? I didn’t want to pinpoint beforehand what that would be. For as long as possible I tried to leave everything completely unresolved.

The lack of normal choreographic unison in [h]interland, however, allowed a different kind of logic to emerge. For me, there was am underlying unity in the three contrasting temporalities of the various media. Gomes’ films were looped. Their cyclical journey through traffic was fascinating for the familiarity we gained with details of the acid-dyed urban landscape through repetition. The flesh and blood dancers’ theatrical time frame was punctuated by their temporary absences and undermined by the lack of choreographic resolution. In other words, the unity of time and place we expected from live performance was disrupted. In contrast, the webcast, with its relative novelty of real-time transmission, flirted with the idea of linear, open-ended time. We knew we were watching a simultaneous reality, and yet there were moments of ambiguity between stillness and motion in Srishailan’s performance, suggesting sometimes that the camera had stopped rolling and time had been frozen. A slow, Mona Lisa-like smile spreading across her face at the end brought us back to the tantalising ‘nowness’ of real time transmission.

  • I wanted three types of presence. One was the ‘real’ live presence; another was the filmed dancer, along with the whole grammar of film, which is to do with editing and cutting in an extreme way. Then there was the webcast presence. I think the minute we started editing and moving the camera, she would have become more like the filmed presence. So that webcast presence had to be a third kind of presence created by the camera being completely still.

    My intention was to make what I call a self-editing dance so that the dancer edited herself into the lens. We worked on close-ups, so, instead of the camera zooming in, the dancer came close to the camera, and instead of shooting her at different angles and editing, I created different angles by turning the dancer. The whole choreography was done with the lens in mind.
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As Roy (1997) has noted, bharata natyam is no longer the anchor from which Jeyasingh departs and returns but one of many possible movement resources to draw upon.  Her dancers are now consummate polyglots and the eclecticism of vocabulary and aesthetic in her work is striking, not as collection of cross-cultural specimens, but for the seductive knowingness with which they are deployed. The dance movement in [h]interland, like her previous work, Phantasmaton, proceeds in a rapid gunfire of succession from one canon of virtuosity to another. I put it to Jeyasingh that the grammar of her choreography is so complex and unexpected - so inorganic - that it sometimes seems composed by chance procedures rather than human authorship:

  • I don’t find the idea of organic pathways of energy very interesting. When I see flow I want to stop it and reroute it wherever possible. I think that’s because most classical techniques are not very flow-oriented. And I suppose the flight from ballet by many dancers was a rejection of artifice and a search to recreate the body in a much more naturalistic way. But it’s the artifice that I’ve always found interesting.

    I’m always drawn to very manipulated states of being. Many dance artists hold that pattern-making is a dead, mechanistic way of making dance. But the study of genetics shows we are made up of patterns, and life itself i

    One of my favourite films is Blade Runner because I love the idea of the cyborg. I think the cyborg is the metaphor for the way we live now, especially people who are migrants or immigrants – which most people who live in cities are.

Jeyasingh’s attraction to artifice is a rejection of the popular notion in dance that we have a deep, holistic inheritance of movement pathways. Creativity, in this tradition, is about attuning oneself to this inborn, or native, kinaesthetic wisdom. Her rejection of it is perfectly in keeping with the postcolonial migrant’s rejection of nostalgia for a ‘native’ homeland, a rejection expressed most persuasively by Salman Rushdie. In its place, skills of personal reinvention, absorption of difference and adaptability are celebrated. In this sense, Jeyasingh’s artistic heritage lies more with the post-colonial writing of Rushdie and Bhabha, than in contemporary dance.

  • I see a parallel [in my work] in the writing of someone like Zadie Smith. I find a real affinity with the way she uses language and can mix very formal elements with very casual, streetwise ones. The way the different ethnicities in her writing really inhabit her book is very much about Britain now. Her characters’ links to London and to Britain aren’t the same as those of a D H Lawrence novel; they haven’t come out of the soil but their way of solving the problem of belonging is very twenty-first century.

    Putting a dancer onstage is about, together, creating a character for them that is more stylised than their own character in the dressing room. In that stylisation of character and in their fluid identity my dancers remind me of characters in Smith’s novels.

When I met Jeyasingh she had just begun work on remaking [h]interland for a national tour. It would be renamed [h]interland2, in recognition that, removed from the architecture of the GDA, it wouldn’t be the same work. The paradox of having to transform the integrity of a site-specific work into a transposable product for the touring market was, she says, a ‘headache’, but also a challenge:

  • I just hope I can take that metaphor and get the same effect in a theatre space; the difference in height and elevation; the incredible sense of remoteness between the balcony and the floor; the sense of a place for leaving. Those things will have to be achieved [with Lucy Carter] through lighting. Whether it’s going to be as strong as before or change and become a different kind of metaphor remains to be seen.

Catherine Hale is a freelance writer. She trained at Ballet Rambert School before reading Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics.

1 For an excellent revisionary account of modern dance history and ideology of modernism, see Jelicic (2001).

2 These citations were obtained after my initial interview with Shobana Jeyasingh, from her commentary on an earlier draft of the article.

3 All further citations are edited excerpts from an interview with Shobana Jeyasingh conducted on 14 January 2003 at the Jerwood Space.

Babha, H. (1994). The location of culture. London: Routledge.

Jeysingh, S. (1995). Imaginary homelands: Creating a new dance language. In Border tensions: Proceedings of the fifth study of dance conference. University of Surrey.

Mackrell, J. (2002, October 26). Review of h(interland). Guardian.

O’Shea, J. (1998). Unbalancing the authentic/partnering tradition: Shobana Jeyasingh’s ‘Romance with Footnotes’. In Proceedings of the Society of Dance History Scholars 21st Conference (pp. 117-126). University of Oregon.

Jelicic, A. (2001). Is ballet really better than modern dance? Dance Theatre Journal, 17 (4),  pp. 40-45.

Roy, S. (1997). Shobana Jeyasingh and cultural issues. Dance Theatre Journal, 13 (4), 4-7.

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