What is Shobana Jeyasingh’s choreography about? [Please tick]
❑ Cultural hybridity
❑ Diaspora identities
❑ Female identities
❑ Updating tradition
❑ An Indian woman in Britain
And the correct answer is:
❑ Other [Please specify]
Shobana Jeyasingh’s choreography is about form, structure, the shape of movement, the qualities of the medium. In short, it’s modernist.
It’s a trick question, of course: you can tick any of the boxes. The point is that reactions to Jeyasingh’s work often focus on cultural issues to the neglect of the formal concerns that are clearly central to her artistic vision. It is perfectly valid to talk about her work in wider cultural terms (I’ve done so myself, and so has Jeyasingh); too often, however, the dance itself then becomes merely a symptom of something else, and consequently is interpreted in terms that don’t do it justice (‘East-West collaboration’, ‘Indian/contemporary dance fusion’); or sometimes the dance is simply passed over altogether. Jeyasingh the choreographer fades into the background in favour of Jeyasingh the Indian woman in Britain who engages with questions of migrancy, diaspora, race, heritage and so on.
It is deeply ironic that work so formally abstract, so modernist, should be addressed as if it were in fact ‘issue-based’. Modernism is often accused of being merely a form of artistic navel-gazing, about nothing but itself, and therefore of positively avoiding engagement with cultural issues. I’m not going to explore here why Jeyasingh might habitually be treated differently; sufﬁce to say she is an exception that proves a rule which links modernism, indeed modernity, with the West, and the West with the white. From this standpoint – what Rasheed Araeen has called ‘the citadel of modernism’ – Jeyasingh is put in the category ‘other’, an outsider, and her position as a modernist Indian artist living in London becomes impossibly contradictory – and therefore, of course, raises issues.
Some of these issues have already been written about elsewhere, so I want to take a different tack here: to trace Jeyasingh’s development as a composer of movement. This is partly to counterbalance the weight given to cultural questions; but also because, as Stephanie Jordan has suggested, by attending to the form of the movement we may enrich our appreciation of both the work and its cultural context. The Jeyasingh’s abstractionist choreography is open to a range of possible associations – meanings are evoked, alluded to, but rarely speciﬁed. So looking at its form may expand our horizons beyond the simple binaries of East/West or Indian/modern towards choices that are wider, more complex, more multiple.
Jeyasingh has maintained a strong focus on the form of movement since her ﬁrst piece in 1988, and over the years she has also extended her range and sophistication. As I see it, her work to date can be divided – very schematically – into three chronological phases, each showing a development in the way that she composes movement.
Before she began choreographing, Jeyasingh had been performing solo items from the Bharata Natyam repertoire, a classical style most closely associated with South India. By her own admission, she prefers the nritta element of the style – its formal, non-narrative, pure-dance aspect – and it is this that forms the basis of her ﬁrst dancework, Conﬁgurations. Signiﬁcantly, this began as a solo, was reworked as a duet, then a trio, and ﬁnally became a quartet. As with many of her works, the title indicates a physical framework that informs the choreography; the piece shows Jeyasingh exploring how a traditionally solo form can be conﬁgured into group formations.
If a rhythm is a pattern in time, then a pattern is a rhythm in space
Nritta is characterised by strong lines and directions, clean outlines, and perhaps most strikingly, by its rhythmically articulate footwork. If a rhythm is a pattern in time, then a pattern is a rhythm in space; and in Conﬁgurations you sense that Jeyasingh is experimenting with the idea of pattern, seeing how she can expand a solo movement vocabulary into ensemble structures. It is a very analytical dance, its classical source broken down into basic components – shape, direction, rhythm – and then reassembled, duplicated and refracted across space and between dancers to construct kaleidoscopic, crystalline geometries. It was this analytical attitude that also led her to commission a score from Michael Nyman, sensing an afﬁnity with his compositional process, with its logical procedures and mathematical permutations, the way he builds up phrases from elemental units.
This way of working also seems to underlie her three subsequent pieces in this ‘back to basics’ phase of work: the starkly formal Correspondences, the clockwork Late, the lush Byzantium. The movement derives largely from the nritta aspect of Bharata Natyam, which Jeyasingh has dissected, decomposed, as if she is stripping away embellishments to get at its bare bones, its skeletal frame, before recomposing it in her own dances.
Even when the dance is ‘about’ something, its form still remains the strongest focus: Jeyasingh seems more interested in showing how it’s made than what it means. This is perhaps best illustrated by Correspondences, if only because this work has the most explicit external reference: a narrative of exile and return in the life of mathematician R. A. Ramanujan. Characteristically though, Jeyasingh abstracts her subject. So, for example, the starting point for one section was a game of tennis – though you’d be hard-pressed to guess this. Rather than referring directly to the game, Jeyasingh used some of its moves, its shifts, its interactions, as a framework to organise movement. In a similar vein, some moves were derived from the image of a mother holding a child, but Jeyasingh fragments and multiplies the movement among different dancers, accentuating the physical form over its notional meaning. As so often with Jeyasingh, the idea may correspond to the movement – but the movement doesn’t necessarily correspond back.
In this early phase, the choreography questions and examines the form of Bharata Natyam, but nevertheless remains closely tied to it (even when the starting point is tennis). Making of Maps, the piece she made after Correspondences, marks a new phase, both a development and a departure. Retaining an emphasis on form and abstraction, the piece signals its departure in the very opening moment of the piece: two dancers move across the stage in classical style, while another pair slide and push themselves over the ﬂoor as if physically gauging the lie of the land. Immediately a tension is set up between the deﬁned language of Bharata Natyam and a more personal, exploratory way of moving.
In Making of Maps, Jeyasingh for the ﬁrst time moved boldly away from the codiﬁed, public form of Bharata Natyam into less deﬁned, more personal territory. And although Bharata Natyam remains a kind of centre of gravity, you get the sense that more than simply analysing it, Jeyasingh has now begun to mould it to her own concerns. The title itself points to this process: Jeyasingh says that she was making ‘a personal map of an Indian dancer living in Britain’ – positioning herself, rather than a classical tradition, at the centre. Again, instead of representing this theme directly or literally – by using speciﬁc characters, actions, situations – she ﬁnds a formal analogue for it. A classical upright position with knees bent outwards, for example, is laid horizontally on the ﬂoor, as if viewed from a new perspective – or, more strongly, simply knocked sideways.
The tension between the clarity of classicism and a more idiosyncratic experimentation forms the basis of this cycle of Jeyasingh’s work, in which I also include Romance with Footnotes, and The Bird and the Wind. The title Romance with Footnotes once again indicates these two poles, here using a literary metaphor: a footnote stands for a deﬁned point of reference, while a romance gives free rein to the imagination. As in Making of Maps, the tension is summarised in the opening moment of the piece, with two pairs of dancers. In both duets, one dancer adopts a classical pose while the other slowly circles her, as if inspecting the stance – and then gently pulls her off centre to see what happens, how she moves: statues shifted from their pedestals and given waywardly human form.
I’ve suggested that in these initial phases Bharata Natyam remains the overriding point of reference. In the third phase, my schema begins to fall apart somewhat (that’s in the nature of schemas), partly because it’s out of chronological order, and partly because it’s not really a phase at all (at least not yet). But I’ll carry on, regardless. The main characteristic of this posited phase is that Bharata Natyam as such becomes less of an ‘issue’ for Jeyasingh, less a Classical Indian Dance Tradition to move with, against, in, or around, and more a resource to draw from as she requires – and not necessarily even the main one.
The ﬁrst piece, Raid, actually predates The Bird and the Wind; and I think of it as a transitional work. It is based on kabbadi, a game in which two teams of players make raids into each other’s zones. What inspired Jeyasingh was the continual toing and froing across shifting borderlines, and the fact that the most interesting, tactical and also most perilous manoeuvres all take place in the opponents’ area, where you’re as likely to lose a player as to score a point.
The dance is formed by analogy to the game, the ‘teams’ being two types of movement set against each other, dance and sport, each making forays into the other’s territory. Jeyasingh had used non-dance movement sources before – sport, martial arts, yoga – but for the ﬁrst time in Raid it seems to stake a claim of its own, informing not just individual movements but also the group composition on its own terms, rather than with half an eye on Bharata Natyam. So we see movements that are more concerned with dynamics than with shape and line: the piece is full of edgy ducking and diving, parry and thrust. And we see ﬂuid spatial patterns and group interactions, more sinuously curved than geometrical. As Jeyasingh says, using a sport allowed her – and her dancers – to break from the principles of classical dance: whereas classical movement is judged by its correctness, sports movement is judged by its effectiveness. A poundingly energetic piece, Raid sees Jeyasingh bursting through the conﬁnes of classicism with a new conﬁdence, shaping movement on the simple basis of what she personally ﬁnds effective. She’s described Raid as her ‘primal scream’; and it feels like a liberation.
Palimpsest, Jeyasingh’s most recent work, seems to coast on this new-found freedom; and if there is to be a ‘phase three’ in my chronology, this is really its ﬁrst piece. In my opinion it is Jeyasingh’s best work yet, both the most assured and the most complex. But you can still trace its lineage: though it is wilder and more wilful than anything she’s produced before, it is nevertheless a tightly crafted piece, its underlying structure once again indicated in the title. A palimpsest is a manuscript which has been overwritten by another text; here Jeyasingh mixes layers of movement writing. The idea ﬁrst occurred to Jeyasingh from Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a drama about two minor characters from Hamlet. Typically, she takes inspiration not from its content, but its form. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, text and subtext are inverted: what was once peripheral is made central, while what was once central, Hamlet, is now marginal. And like Stoppard overwriting Shakespeare, Jeyasingh overwrites Bharata Natyam, which in Palimpsest only ever appears as such at the edges of the stage.
But Palimpsest is more complex than this: Bharata Natyam is one layer of many. Several different movement sources appear – martial arts (chhau, kalari), nritta, abhinaya (the expressive, dramatic aspect of classical Bharata Natyam), and naturalistic gesture. Unlike in Raid, though, they’re rarely seen as blocks of movement; instead, they seem to bubble up to the surface at different times, then sink to different depths, adjusting their speciﬁc gravities in the ﬂuid matrix of the dance. In fact it is remarkable how freely Palimpsest ranges through so many layers while retaining a strong sense of composition. The effect is achieved at least in part because so many of the movement phrases are repeated (Jeyasingh reckons that just about all the moves seen in the dance appear within the ﬁrst 10 minutes), but when they reappear it is often at a different angle, in a different place, with a different context, like strangely familiar landmarks emerging from shifting sands.
This sense of shifting perspective also occurs on another level: the context of performance. Early on in the piece, two dancers simply watch another perform, like a miniature audience on stage. And towards the end, the dancers cluster in naturalistic conversational groupings, occasionally turning to look at the audience, as if wondering what we’re doing there, all sitting in orderly rows and trying to understand; another inversion of centre and margin.
What once appeared deﬁned is overwritten by personal signatures, smooth sand now criss-crossed with footprints; their presence fades beneath the surface like memories.
Throughout Palimpsest there’s a sense that its animated surface obscures something underneath. During the dancers’ ‘conversations’, for example, they seem to be telling stories to each other – but we don’t know what they’re about. And behind the variegated phrases of movement we may glimpse the ghosts of Bharata Natyam, or kalari, or even other pieces by Jeyasingh – but they never quite become manifest. What once appeared deﬁned, recognisable, concrete, is overwritten by personal signatures, smooth sand now criss-crossed with footprints; their presence fades beneath the surface like memories.
A palimpsest, in fact, was the image that Freud used to explain the process of memory – the past continuously imprinted, obscured and rewritten by the present; and in Palimpsest it is tempting to see Jeyasingh looking back over her own choreographic history from her current vantage point. We can still see that early, analytical mind at work, the concern with form and framework, the later exploration of personal style and use of different movement sources, but now her choices have become more multiple: the work is more intriguingly complex, more marked by experience, more completely her own. Palimpsest stands as a testament to her choreographic intelligence, and to her determination to follow her own path. Which direction it will lead from here remains to be seen.
1. Rasheed Araeen, ‘In the Citadel of Modernism’, in The Other Story, (London: South Bank Centre, 1989).
2. See for example, Sanjoy Roy, ‘Dirt, Noise, Trafﬁc: Contemporary Indian Dance in the Western City’, in Dance in the City ed. Helen Thomas (London: Macmillan, 1997), pp. 68–85; Shobana Jeyasingh, ‘Imaginary Homelands: Creating a New Dance Language’ in Border Tensions: Proceedings of the Fifth Study of Dance Conference (Guildford: University of Surrey, 1995) pp. 191–197; Sarah Rubidge, ‘Romance with Footnotes’ (London: Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, 1996).
3. Stephanie Jordan, ‘Networking Dances: “Home and Away” in the Choreography of Shobana Jeyasingh’ in New Dance From Old Cultures, Greenmill Papers 1996, ed. Crusader Hillis and Urszula Dawkins, (Ausdance, 1997) pp. 39–43.