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Shobana Jeyasingh: [h]Interland    
The following observations and reflections by Shobana Jeyasingh, Hannah Bruce and Niki Pollard have been selected and edited by Sanjoy Roy.

 

   
[h]Interland website:

Areas:

1. Observation process and method
2. Rehearsal in studio
3. gDA
4. Bangalore


1. Observation process and method

The research material for this project was produced through three main methods:

Observer journals documenting and reflecting on Shobana’s work for the five weeks in the rehearsal studio with dancers Mavin Koo and Sowmya Gopalan. The two researchers attended rehearsals sporadically in the first two weeks, and then more continuously throughout the rest of rehearsal. Except on one occasion, the researchers were not in the studio together. Neither researcher was present at the rehearsals in Bangalore or at many of the discussions with collaborators.

Each researcher made brief, private notes during rehearsal which were written up later. As such, these journals selectively document the observer’s understanding of the rehearsal process according to idiosyncratic factors including her disciplinary and socio-cultural background, her alertness in rehearsal and the degree to which rehearsal events at any given time were audible and visible to her.

Each researcher aimed to be reflexively aware of both how and what they observed, their tools of judgement, and of the account they gave retrospectively in writing. In both cases, the researchers, while dance-trained, lacked expert disciplinary familiarity with the field of British South Asian dance, and had not previously given detailed research attention to Shobana’s work.

The research rationale for both the observer presence and journal-keeping is that, by being non-participatory, the observer may notice aspects of an artist’s practice that are overlooked or not considered as notable from a participant’s perspective. Contrasts in these perspectives can then inform subsequent conversations with artists.


Video documentation.

Generally, each day that a researcher was present, a VHS camera on a fixed tripod was left running throughout rehearsal, with only occasional use of zoom. In the final fortnight, the researchers also used Shobana’s mini-DV camera to take selective footage of rehearsal which could be edited for use on this site.

Unstructured interviews with Shobana by both observers and by Christopher Bannerman, which were recorded and transcribed as a resource for the ResCen archive. Edited extracts are necessarily selective and interpretative, and the conversations have to varying degrees been modulated to be appropriate for the web context.


2. Rehearsal in studio

INSTINCT/Intuition

Shobana, in conversation with Hannah, 12 November 2002

SJ        It’s just about finding a coherence really, its like arranging the words to make a sentence, but trying to find the grammar of a sentence, so that actually the whole thing becomes coherent and believable.

I find it very difficult to have people in the studio, because I always think there is no way anyone can see where this is leading to, I can’t even see it myself. It's only a sketch, it’s a note. But of course people have responses to that sketch, and then they discuss it with you and you respond to them, and actually then you get deflected sometimes. You can’t ever explain to them its not even 10% of what its going to look like, only a note to myself as to what it could look like, in another 4 weeks.

Hannah’s reflections

“These words like ‘instinct’, ‘feeling’ ‘sense’ – they keep recurring. […] Shobana says she has no sense of a ‘whole’ or ‘story’, but there is some kind of internal logic which is guiding her to make these decisions.  She refers to ‘the thing’, ‘the story’, ‘the piece’, and most interestingly ‘it’.”

“What is ‘it’?  ‘It’ seems to be something sensed -  a feeling which cannot be articulated on the surface of things, but which Shobana has a sense of. […] This reminds me of ‘eureka! I’ve got it!’ where ‘it’ is the solution to a mathematical puzzle; ‘it’ is the answer.  But here, ‘it’ is the performance, and has many elements, many collaborators, many layers, and is enmeshed, woven, active.  […] Shobana simultaneously has no sense of the ‘story’ and yet knows that what we’re seeing in the studio is not ‘it’.  Perhaps what is conventionally referred to as ‘fine tuning’ is the process of material becoming ‘it’?  So there are many tiny adjustments which on their own are insignificant, but as a whole illustrate Shobana’s experienced ‘eye’.”

Shobana, in conversation with Hannah, 12 November 200

SJ        For me, things remain subconscious for a very long time, and I need to see the dancers doing it again and again. I think the movement needs to settle and enter into their bodies […] Only then can you take the material and play with it – you take something and turn it around in three different places, and it’s a different piece. Suddenly its dance, its choreography. I think that for me that’s the big journey, from sequence to phrase - I think that it remains in that sequence phase for a long time.”

“ […] those are the kind of instinctive, creative decisions that you can't plan for. […] Those are the things that you just have to trust that they happen, and you hope that experience plays a part in making it happen, but you can never guarantee it. If there’s a magic bit to making dance, then for me, that’s the magic bit. It is seemingly non-rational, although I am sure doing it for a long time and working at your craft, all this has some relevance. […] But something other than time and effort has to work as well. I don’t know what it is – imagination maybe?

You also have to know when it is the right time to make it. I think this is one of the things I have learnt. When I was starting I'd get so nervous about whether it was going to happen that I'd constantly try to make that material, and make the dancers do lots of different versions. Now I think I tend not to do that. I think if you leave it until the appropriate moment then things do happen if you can hold onto your nerve!

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WORKING WITH DANCERS

From Hannah’s Journal, Rehearsal Week 1: Thursday 20 September 2002

SJ tries out a lot of the movement herself as well as long periods of silence whilst she is thinking and the dancers are waiting. […] I say SJ tries out the movement herself – she does not really move much, but is obviously thinking through a feeling within her body, such as feeling a twist. It looks like she uses her body almost as a puzzle to decipher where the next bit of movement goes, rather than watching the dancers puzzle it out.

from interview between Shobana and Niki, 1 November 2002

NP        Often you would arrive in the studio in the morning, look in your notebook, and immediately begin setting material. What would you have in your notebook - a detailed description of the phrase or a sketch of possibilities.

SJ        A sketch, or shorthand pointers and reminders. That day I would know what I meant, but it is not a notation. If I go back now I wouldn’t recognise it.

NP        And how would have you come up with those pointers?

SJ        In the evening, I would work it out, not in a formed way, but usually in front of a mirror – I use my wardrobe mirror! Notes towards movement. I don’t see myself as a dancer so wouldn’t want to make something one hundred per cent. I am never going to go and say, ‘do this’ - or I hope I don’t. For me, it is about indicating some way of going for the dancers and then seeing what happens.

NP        Does it take you long in the evenings to find that sketch?

SJ        Yes, a very long time, producing small things. But they are solely things that one starts off with, which then gather momentum, expand and become other things.


from interview between Shobana and Niki, 1 November 2002

NP        You have worked with both Sowmya and Mavin prior to [h]Interland?

SJ        Yes, a fact which makes a big difference. […]

NP        And you develop individual approaches to work with each dancer?

SJ        I work in a very different way with Mavin to Sowmya, for instance, as they have different skills, different contexts. With Sowmya, the simple thing is that I have known her much longer, have worked with her much more […]. Mavin, I have worked with only on one project […]. I am still looking at him and understanding what he is about.


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MOVEMENT MATERIAL

Starting points

from interview between Shobana and Hannah, 12 November 2002, when looking at a short excerpt of video shot by Hannah during rehearsal:

HB     I was interested because you obviously have a very clearly planned idea here of movement material. I wondered whether that had come from your notebook, and if so what do you write down.

SJ      I don't write anything particularly; I couldn't look at the notebook now and produce this movement! I think it's just a way of jotting down thoughts

This section we are looking at had a little jump. I'd been playing football with Karanesh, and playing this game where he had to kick the ball and I had to dodge it, and I suddenly found myself doing… from a heel thing to a toe. [demonstrating]. So I thought “oh, that’s interesting, I'll try that in the studio the next day”.

HB     And so, when you're making these notes, are you writing them down in words, or are you drawing images?

SJ      Not drawing. Some words - I might just say 'Karanesh football' in the background in brackets. It's just to jog your memory, because it's so difficult to notate movements that don't really come from any particular system. […] it’s like a private code for jogging my memory.

HB     Right. So it quite often is a kind of reference point…

SJ      Reference point to something that I've thought about. [...]

HB     kind of an anchor?

SJ      Yes, yes.


from interview between Shobana and Niki, 1 November 2002

SJ        I don’t think, in the end, anyone would look at one of these phrases and associate it with Odissi or whatever. That was a starting point, to remind, or place the dancer, but from which it moves on to be something completely different. Starting points may have nothing to do with end-points; they are organising tactics.

NP        Does it help ease a dancer into your process, to work from something more familiar to them?

SJ        It could be. Sometimes it makes it harder to leave that place. It is just a possible means to an end. Putting petrol in a car can get you somewhere but I am not interested in the petrol for its own sake.


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from interview between Shobana and Niki, 1 November 2002

NP        When we came in you were talking about the grid.

SJ        The grid? I don’t know if it got us more than a couple of movement elements. It was a task I did because Mavin has three very strong dance languages: ballet, Bharata Natyam and Odissi.

NP        He seemed more shy about using Odissi?

SJ        I suppose Ballet and Bharata Natyam are the two things he has worked most in. I was fascinated by the Odissi side of him. For the grid, I divided the body into different, numbered zones and said, for example, arms will be the Odissi zone, torso will be Bharata Natyam zone. We tried to make up phrases saying, for instance, if you put the movement from zones two, four and six together, what will you get? Sometimes they made interesting dance phrases, other times they didn’t.


from interview between Shobana and Niki, 1 November 2002

NP        Were you looking for particular stories in the Odissi abinaya?

SJ        No, any story. I was looking for the possibility of interesting manipulation. The thing I start out manipulating doesn’t seem crucial to me.

[…]

NP        And what is the experience of seeing something that you identify as manipulable?

SJ        I have a feel that something here could be changed into something interesting.

NP        Have you always had that eye?

SJ        I was always interested in changing things. I want to take the body in some different routes. In a conventional movement language, there are certain rules about how you can move, for example, in classical dance they are to do with shapes and regular pathways. There are pathways too through which the body naturally moves. I find my eye is not engaged by movement pathways set through some perceived idea of symmetry or idea of ‘flow’.

NP        And so moments that you pick up on…?

SJ        are ones that express that ‘non-flow’, that have a strangeness to them. I try to create conditions whereby that can happen, for instance with unusual meeting points.


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from interview between Shobana and Hannah, 12 November 2002

HB     you were talking about how limitations are very useful, because in a sense you can create anything, so it’s a question of limiting yourself in certain ways. Can you explain a bit more about this?

SJ      It’s important to create barriers. For example, I could say to a dancer “dance as if you’ve only got one arm”. That’s not because you’re going to dance with only one arm, but it’s a way of putting creative barriers to see what comes up. Obviously all manner of things are possible in a studio, and I think part of the challenge of being a choreographer is actually finding interesting barriers, to find limits. The more interesting your limits are, the more interesting your material is.


From interview between Shobana and Niki, 14 September 2002

NP        Can you tell me about the work you did with Chitra?

SJ        Young people like Chitra spend a lot of time in Bangalore getting around by riding on motorbikes. Starting points for movement came from sitting on motorbikes; what the body does when it is sitting on a bike, the different dynamic and angles one has to go through, what the body does in terms of balance. So the phrases we have now are things like ‘petrol station’, ‘putting on your helmet’, ‘sudden break’, ‘skid’. They are not literal - the vocabulary of riding a motorbike has become a symbol.


from interview between Shobana and Niki, 1 November 2002

NP        You were talking about wanting a quality of acceleration, of movement that went ‘va-va-voom’. Rhythmically, did that also link to the abstracted gestures of kick-starting a motorbike?

SJ        I suppose it belonged with that, but those gestures came with the other motorbike actions, while working with Sowmya. I was interested how the body of a motorbike-rider is very active, unlike a car driver who just sits. The way one leans into turns, driving the machine with your body. I liked the kick-starting movement because it is not technique oriented, but has such energy and personality.


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Fine Tuning

Shobana, in conversation with Hannah, 12 November 2002

SJ        I always have banks of things. I feel I don't make a piece in the studio, instead it’s a bit like having a bank account: you put things in your deposit account, and then for me what usually happens in the last week before performances is that I take these things from my bank account, and bring them into my current account. […] In fact, with this piece in particular, because I never really knew what the story was, it was really made when we got to the Greenwich Dance Agency with all the other things. I had no idea what the middle of the thing was; it certainly didn't have an ending. For example the whole of Mavin's solo was done at the Greenwich Dance Agency using all this material that was floating around that I'd worked on with him, lots of different ideas…

HB        So in terms of this idea of a bank account, how do you organise your account?

SJ      I suppose the material gives you hints. Certain connections appear. I think that’s the bit that is so difficult, because it is to do with instinct and experience, and you just sort of feel “this thing could come before this”, or “this thing is more logical if you see this bit before that”, or “this together with this creates a flow”.


From interview between Shobana and Niki, 14 September 2002

NP       Do many first ideas come to you in the rehearsal studio?

SJ        No, I will probably take some images with me to try out. You make the starting points and see where they go. If they are not going to places you want, then you make different starting points.

NP        Do you often restart like that?

SJ        Oh yes, I usually make loads of material that I don’t use. Sometimes I will go quite far with material, crafting it - but then don’t use it, which can be difficult for the dancers who have worked on it. I need to look at material over and over again, and so I video a lot. […] When I look at something closely it teaches me so much, gives me a feel for each person, for what they are doing. Watching is all important for me. It is what Merce Cunningham says about choreography as the eye in judgement.


STRUCTURING & COMPOSITION: PARTS & WHOLES

From Niki’s Journal, Rehearsal Week 4: Friday 11 October

“…After the break, Shobana talks them through a rough order of the material; Long Walk and Sowmya’s motorbike; Loops twice, with film; Duets; Mavin’s solo. This order may change, Shobana comments, once she can see the movement with Chitra and the films, and if the music does not provide what she is expecting.

Shobana, in conversation with Hannah, 12 November 2002

SJ        For weeks and weeks the ‘Loops’ material [eventually a duet between Sowmya and Mavin] was 2 people doing exactly the same material in a very flat format […] I knew it wasn’t going to be the end product, but I just wasn’t ready to go and play around with it. I think it’s only when we reached the Greenwich Dance Agency that I (in my own terms) 'composed' it. It was just a sketch, not even a sketch; it was just intentions towards a sketch. But […] it’s like that for a very long time.  People see it in week 1 and it’s like that, and week 2, week 3, week 4, its still like that. What's changing is inside me.

Shobana, in conversation with Christopher Bannerman, November 2002

SJ        You always go through periods when you think nothing is working. […] Often, the composition part of it only comes into being for me in the very last week, or the last three days. I never make endings until really the day before the preview or sometimes not even then. […] You spend a lot of time thinking nothing is gelling. And all you have is just little bits of movement – some work, some doesn’t work. I think that is always going to be like that…

3. Greenwich Dance Agency

Shobana, in conversation with Niki, 14 September 2002

SJ The gDA space will influence the nature of the movement I create. I am not seeing it as a performance space, a stage in which things will happen. Rather I am seeing it in terms of lines, routes, pathways, doors. A collection of roads, rather than a central space.

Shobana, in conversation with Christopher Bannerman, November 2002

SJ Theatrical space is what I call ‘arrival’ space. Everything is there, it is designed to be a neutral space, where things happen. To me, the Borough Hall didn’t look interesting from that point of view. There is a lighting rig, but it is large and gloomy with custard-coloured walls and too many doors. It seemed to me that the hall needed to be re-imagined. I liked the balcony because of its height, and its curve. I liked the fact that there was the lift in front of the main doors. Those were the only features; the whole piece became a way of accessing them. It had to be a way of travelling from one feature to another - and all those interesting features were actually doorways.

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Lighting

Shobana, in conversation with Hannah, 12 November 2002

SJ Lucy's whole lighting was just about pathways really… […] The lighting is such a crucial partner, especially at Greenwich Dance Agency. The most important area was under the balcony, and everything else was slightly extraneous. I never thought about it as a central hall, and the lighting never gave prominence to the central space […] but instead strongly suggested travel. It carried the eye from one place to another rather than resting it firmly in one place.

Shobana, in conversation with Niki, 1 November 2002

SJ [,,,] we didn’t want to light the walls at all. If you had seen the space with the walls where they normally were, the dancers would have looked completely lost. Instead, we wanted a particular kind of presence, a plasticity, to the space, so that there was no set scale. In reality, it is a huge space but with the lighting it could feel huge if you wanted it, but also small and intimate if I needed.

NP Was that idea difficult with the lighting requirements of using video projection?

SJ in theatre it would have been more of a problem, because the space is smaller. The issue with video is that, in order to see it, the space must be dark – but then you can’t see the dancer. With lighting higher, the colours of the video are washed-out. That was another reason then for colour throughout the production to be hyper-exaggerated. The palettes we used meant that lighting was not in fact restricted.


Departures and arrival

Shobana, in conversation with Hannah, 12 November 2002

SJ Of course, the building itself isn’t a cosy building. For me, the many doors really made the building. It’s the ways of getting out of the building that actually made it more interesting, and the possibility of leaving the space.

Shobana, in conversation with Niki, 1 November 2002

SJ Originally, I thought Mavin would enter the space through the lifts at the beginning of the performance. But then I said, I think he is going to leave rather than come in. When you signal that you are leaving somewhere, psychologically you put the audience into a very different relationship to that space. If I had had him coming in, it would have been a completely different piece. If you arrive, the space becomes the thing. Whereas if you leave, you erase something.

NP and you immediately have a sense of gDA extending beyond what you can see?

SJ yes, so that it does not become the primary thing, as a stage space is. I think that that was probably the most important decision of that piece. Linked to that was the decision that Mavin would be retreating, rather than turning his back to the audience. He wasn’t leaving the audience behind, only the space. We tried all those things – was he going to turn his back? was he going to do his material in reverse order – so that the material registered as retreat more than departure. In a way, I think all the piece is about departures and arrivals.


Collaboration

Shobana, in conversation with Hannah, 12 November 2002

SJ The project was like having a cooker full of different things, which are all bubbling away. I had to orchestrate, but I don't think I ever thought of it as producing a whole. There were so many different elements which needed to be woven together, and I had to decide how many could occupy the foreground at any given time […]. It was a question of deciding between fore, middle and background, and deciding how the various elements could interplay. That was the process: I didn’t think about it in terms of all the elements making one big thing.

Shobana, in conversation with Hannah, 12 November 2002

HB Obviously all the collaborators had strong personalities. Did you feel that trying to negotiate and co-ordinate with them all was almost an artistic act in itself?

SJ It is, yes. You constantly have to clarify things to yourself and to them, because in the end you have to justify what you are saying. I think understanding the process and always being able to have a conversation are very important in collaborations.

It was very enjoyable and exciting to have all those different inputs from different people, and having all those things to juggle in order to make that final script. You want it to be fruitful for everybody; you don't want anybody to feel ripped off and think “oh well that’s my idea but that’s not the way I saw it”. I think people have to have artistic satisfaction; that’s really important.

For example, with Donnacha there was a real point of potential conflict between us. I was so happy with the music that he gave me, but I really did not like a particular 3 minutes, and I said so to him, and hassled him a bit. But I think we came out with a sense of respect for each other. In the end it was quite interesting actually, to have something I really battled with. It gave me something that I couldn't have planned. Donnacha and I got on brilliantly, but with him I had a number of areas of potential conflict.

That’s the interesting part of collaboration for me, where you can actually have those dual things - a wonderful collaboration and at the same time very strong views and areas of disagreement. I think its good to disagree. It’s hard when you daren't disagree because I don’t think you get to the best of either of you if you can’t have those disagreements. Both people need to be pushed in some ways.

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4. Bangalore

Hannah’s reflection

“Shobana has often spoken to Niki and I about how for her, Bangalore is a rapidly developing city at the centre of technical advances. Shobana explained to me that in [h]Interland she was interested in the urban reality of Bangalore – the traffic, the roads, the rapid growth and modern buildings, and the technological expertise. For Shobana, this experience of Bangalore is far from the exotic rural idyll often depicted in Western constructions of Indian lifestyles.”

Shobana, in conversation with Niki, 1 November 2002

SJ The piece is called [h]Interland, which I suppose is autobiographical because Bangalore is my hinterland. It is a city that I always visit, where I have lived for a time, where my parents live today and where my grandfather’s house is. Many of my dancers also come from there. I knew the piece, especially the film had to be something to do with motorbikes and traffic.

NP At the Dance Umbrella Virtual Incarnations discussion at the ICA in September, just before rehearsals began, you reminded Merce Cunningham that he had once said that someone in India should make a piece about the traffic. His comment, you said, had been on your mind while you were filming in Bangalore, placing a dancer in the middle of a busy roundabout. You said that you became aware of the choreography of traffic at junctions, of drivers’ concentration on the countdown signals showing when the lights will change. What was it about motorbikes, more than just traffic, that drew you?

SJ I think all my dancers from Bangalore, when I first met them, had motorbikes. That is how young women in Bangalore travel around, come to rehearsal. That intensity of the traffic is so much a part of cities like Bangalore, part of the way they look for me. When I was growing up, Bangalore was known as the garden city, rather than the IT capital that it is now.

NP And that shift interested you?

SJ Yes, Bangalore has had to accelerate, and I think that it has done so in an interesting way. It is that acceleration and intensity that I wanted Pete to film.

Webcast

Shobana, in conversation with Niki, 14 September 2002

SJ The most perfect live link would be by satellite, your own superhighway from your venue to the other venue, with probably a perfectly synchronised image. Actually, for me that is not so exciting. […] If I showed someone a perfectly projected image of a dancer, I don’t think there would be a real ‘now-ness’ to its surface.

Our sense of time has been so tampered with by different audio-visual formats – video, television - that I wondered what format could be particular to real-time linking. My first decision was to have a ‘locked’, immovable camera, to remove the grammar of the camera - of manipulating an image, of edits and cuts. I felt this would give a different way of relating to the dancer. All the choreography for Chitra took in the fact that it would be seen through a static camera, as through a window.

[…]

NP You must have worked closely with the camera angle when choreographing Chitra’s movement?

SJ Yes, the choreography takes into account the scale of the figure to the camera. I looked at everything through the camera lens, creating close-ups, for example, by how the dancer moves closer to the lens. It became a self-editing dance.


Shobana, in conversation with Hannah, 12 November 2002

SJ Had we vision-mixed Chitra, and introduced more than one camera, and more than one angle, it would have been a completely different piece. She would have looked invulnerable.

HB So was her vulnerability a point that was important to you?

SJ I think that’s what makes time real. That’s what gives her a different kind of presence than Mavin or Sowmya, or her image on Pete's film. It’s a very subtle thing; the reason I think it was successful was just because people didn’t notice. For example, you never imagine questioning Sowmya's reality because you can see her…she is there. I think Chitra had a different kind of unquestioned presence. You looked at her in a particular way – she had a flat presence. I found her presence really intriguing because she was flat like a filmed presence, and yet she wasn't manipulated like a filmed presence.


Shobana, in conversation with Christopher Bannerman, November 2002

SJ I knew that I was never very interested in trying to synchronize Chitra with the dancers here or the film. If I wanted synchronicity, I might as well have flown her here to rehearse with me in the studio. Instead, distance was the main thing, with how it makes for fragmentative experiences. You celebrate the sometimes alienating effects of distance; the fact that Chitra was there at midnight, we were here at 7.30; she was next to an extremely noisy main road, whereas we had Donnacha’s music.

For me, [h]Interland was not about testing technology, but about reflecting conditions of life, that Chitra was in Bangalore and I was here. The only thing we had in common was we had a history together.


Film

Shobana, in conversation with Niki, 1 November 2002

NP You were with Pete [Gomes, Bangalore Film Director] in Bangalore when he was making the films that are projected as part of [h]Interland?

SJ Yes. What the camera looked at was fundamentally determined by the ideas behind the piece. For various reasons, Bangalore is, I suppose, my hinterland. I wanted my impression of Bangalore to be what the film was about. Certain things he liked – for instance, the rose garden, temples, how fruit was piled up in a market – I knew could never be part of the film. I knew the film had to be to do with traffic and with a woman on a motorbike.

I had a very clear image that I wanted the film to capture the acceleration and intensity of Bangalore. I knew that it was going to be not a naturalistic film, but one highly manipulated through colour; cars would be pink, leaves blue, Chitra was going to be purple. Rather than the intensity of a natural green leaf, the film had to have the intensity that artifice gives.
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