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Shobana Jeyasingh: [h]Interland    
Sanjoy Roy comments on the perspectives of the observed and observer in the making of [h]Interland

   

The following reflections on creating [h]Interland are retrospective, after-the-event. They were written several months after the rehearsal process was documented and the piece performed in public. They are presented here to provide one frame through which the observation process itself can be viewed, and to highlight the fact that no observation is neutral.

Is observation ‘successful’ only to the extent that it accords with the creator’s own view of her practice? In this case, there were divergences of perspective and opinion as well as confluences. Using some ideas suggested by [h]Interland itself – different presences overlapping in the same arena, hidden spaces, crossing paths and partial views – the frame presented here suggests that these divergences can be as productive as the semblance of objectivity produced by consensus.

Shobana Jeyasingh’s [h]Interland plays on the double meanings – between and beyond suggested in the title. Rather than treating the Greenwich Borough Hall as an architecturally bound space, with a performance that happens in the here-and-now [see Ia, below], it radically transforms the space into a strangely rootless zone of transit, crossed by sounds, images and bodies. The film projections – a lurid neon-coloured loop of Bangalore traffic, and a live webcast from a Bangalore rooftop – suggest represented places, spaces and times beyond the locale of the hall. And while the dancers of course perform in the here-and-now, they nevertheless frequently exit the hall and reappear on different levels or through different doors, indicating the presence of other, hidden parts of the building.

The effect is disorienting, unsettling. Rather than watching a framed spectacle, you feel almost as if you are catching the performance from the sidelines or from open wings, with various strands (Bangalore, the corridors and lifts of the building) partially obscured from view but nevertheless with a life of their own beyond the confines of the piece.

Ia “here-and-now”

The following table is a schematic map of how the elements of time and place intersect in [h]Interland .

Now Not-Now
Here Live dancers in Borough Hall Musicians, lighting, audience .
Not-Here Chitra webcast from Bangalore Video footage from Bangalore
. Dancers in the hinterland (corridors, lifts) of Borough Hall .

In the light of Jeyasingh’s comment on [h]Interland ’s ‘autobiographical’ aspect,* it’s interesting that the piece occupies three of the cells but not the fourth. We can gloss the different cells as:

Now Not-Now
Here All people currently in a place, regradless of history (native, migrant, immigrant). A history that belongs to the current place - the 'native' position. Not represented in the [h]Interland.
Not-Here Simultaneousness. Not in this pl ace but with a concurrent presence elsewhere, diasporic family connections, international networks. A history that took place elsewhere - for example the past/memory of a migrant

* [HB interview, 12 November 2002]HB: “… She explained that in one way this piece was autobiographical […] reflecting and alluding to the way that she has experienced space and time.” SJ: “… there was something about space, and distance, and time - the way it delivered those elements - that I recognised. That’s the way my life has also dealt with space and time […] Holding different types of space and distant elements together. So I think that’s what I really meant by ‘autobiographical’, rather than details.”

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II

The process of creating a piece is itself a kind of hinterland – the behind and beyond of what is presented in the public performance. For [h]Interland , a website is a particularly apt medium to present this information: like the performance itself, it conjures a virtual space, crossed by themes and images. For the performance, one of Jeyasingh’s starting points was the image of motorways and traffic; and the website itself provides a number of different routes through the work – there’s no ‘point of arrival’, no pin on the map which states what the work is ‘really’ about, and there’s no defined route that explains exactly how it was created.

III

The documentation of that creative process, by observers Hannah Bruce and Niki Pollard, is yet another kind of hinterland. Recording the process involved several people (choreographer, dancers, collaborators, observers) crossing paths within a particular space (the studio, the hall), each bringing their own backgrounds to the scene.

Jeyasingh’s image of [h]Interland as “a collection of motorways with hinterlands beyond what the audience could see” could equally describe this nexus. This metaphor raises many questions about the approach, objectives, value and outcome of observation and documentation, for example:

  • are some routes better, or more relevant, than others? to what end?
  • to what extent and to what end should the observers aim to be ‘invisible’, or at least inthe background?
  • should there be an explicit, rigid methodology, or should the enquiry be open-endedand malleable?
  • is it useful, or sufficient, to comment on what is not observed?
  • should observations be rewritten with the benefit of hindsight?
  • how much of the observers’ own baggage, or hinterland, should be brought into theforeground, and in what way?

In fact, in any observation project, the answers to these questions are to some degree unpredictable, for they depend as much on circumstance and personality as on method and planning. These questions are set out here to bear in mind when reading the documentation contained in this website.

IV

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When an audience sees a work presented in public, it is taken for granted that they bring their own baggage and make their own judgements. What is the difference between a spectator of a performance and an observer of a process?

For Jeyasingh, “I think the audience earns the right to bring their differing points to bear upon the experience. Observers have to work a bit harder to achieve some measure of distance – to try to understand the intentions behind the work rather than respond to it from the outside; to ensure that while they record their impressions, which are perfectly valid, that they check whether anything is being missed out in that process; to ask if the methodology serves the practice.”

In reflecting on her particular experience of the observation process, Jeyasingh (perhaps unconsciously) extended the traffic metaphor so central to [h]Interland , describing it as an “impending accident” and “a collision between two dance cultures”, feeling that some of the private process in the studio was “invisible” to the observers.

“The differing dance cultures are not necessarily the product of differing ethnicity, rather I felt that it was because both the dancers and myself come from classically conditioned backgrounds which we embrace even when our express purpose is to break all its rules. A strong feature of this culture is often to be led by the objective eye rather than by the subjective experience of the dancer. The other is an underlying theatrical purpose which informs even the process of its own subversion.”

Va

“Hannah [Bruce] was very good at recognising the role that instinct plays in the studi o and the nature of the relationship between what one sees in the studio and the fina l product that is put out in public. This recognition occurred in hindsight as noted in a n interview after she had seen the show. I think she understood better what she wa s observing in the studio after the public performance.

Bruce’s rehearsal journal, for example, recognises her puzzlement and re-thinking on tw o particular occasions:

[HB journal, week 2 at Islington Arts Factory, 24 September ] “What about preparation? This I can’t get my head around … I am missing it. Th e material seems to all be here already, as if assembled from a flat-packed IKEA array [… ] Where is the IKEA factory? What is the manual?

[HB journal, week 4 at gDA, 17 October ] “Suddenly there is the outline of almost a whole piece - huge swathes of movement!! M y understanding of the structure is way behind the dancers’, it seems. […] How could I no t have known/seen all this? […] I feel as if a rabbit has been produced from a hat. Wher e did all this come from, and when did it happen?

This could be seen as a blind spot on the part of the observer, but it could also b e witness to the fact that there are moments in creating a work when elements suddenl y ‘gel’, sometimes unpredictably and sometimes without the conscious awareness of th e creators – moments that are easier to discern in retrospect. As Jeyasingh commented i n interview (with HB, 12 November): “In the studio for a long time you don’t actually se e even stage 2 of the choreographic process, you only see stage 1.”

Vb

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In response to Niki Pollard’s journal, Jeyasingh felt that at certain points it indicated a very different starting position, or ‘dance culture’, from her own. Pollard has experienc e of observing contemporary choreographers who work with physical and kinaestheti c experience, organic connections, with internal body imagery, and with questioning tasks . Jeyasingh’s background stems from a classical dance tradition, and she views her ow n process as much more concerned with manipulated, artificial and disjunctive movement s than with finding organic connections between body and movement, or with drawing o n internal somatic experience.

Some examples from Pollard’s journal :

[NP journal, week 1 at Islington Arts Factory, 19 September ] “[Jeyasingh’s] questions to [the dancers] are as to visual possibility rather tha n experience or response.

[NP journal, week 1 at Islington Arts Factory, 19 September ] “This use of [video] play-back within rehearsal suggests that Shobana is working righ t from the start from the perspective of what will be seen by an audience (rather than, fo r example, how another choreographer might work to project visibly a somatic experienc e of the dancers).

[NP journal, week 3 at Islington Arts Factory, 4 October ] “I am struck by how metre is used in this way; other choreographers might use a mor e subjective experience of the dancer, or a breath duration of the timing.

None of these comments is inaccurate, but Jeyasingh felt that focusing on alternativ e processes might have inhibited an engagement with what was actually going on in th e studio. More fundamentally, she felt it represented a way of seeing that was out of phas e with her own perspective.

Pollard is (or becomes) aware of this difference

[NP journal, week 4 at Islington Arts Factory, 8 October ] “Shobana comments to me that she realised […] how different her process is from that o f other contemporary choreographers I had observed working. […] Far from wanting t o find the ‘suchness’ of her dancers she wants to change, to manipulate their existin g movement qualities, that she is not trying to achieve an effect of ‘organicity’, or watchin g spontaneous movement.

Jeyasingh noted that it was interesting that the grasping of this point intellectually di d not seem to inform fully the perspective of the oberver particularly in relation to findin g sources of movement, to directing the dancers, and to setting tasks.

For Jeyasingh therefore, a key aspect of this documentation of artistic process remain s ‘absence’. For Bruce the invisibility of the process meant that the final work appeared a s if by magic; for Pollard the process was best characterised by identifying what was not .

This returns us to the questions posed above and, in presenting the [h]Interland website , this debate is open to you.

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