Shobana Jeyasingh’s Surface Tension (2000) was inspired to some degree by Susan Sontag’s classic essay ‘Against Interpretation’, in which she calls for a ‘theatre of the senses’ – performance that engages our senses rather than our understanding, communicating by stimulus and effect rather than story and symbol. In fact, all of Jeyasingh’s work has at least one foot in Sontag’s camp; but Surface Tension takes it as a theme, with programme notes inviting us simply to ‘judge the book by its cover, and seriously enjoy the icing on the cake’.
But sugary it is not. The opening phrase cursorily signals the main ingredients: a classical bharata natyam gesture is dropped in favour of a casual swaying of the hips, which is itself brusqely interrupted by an asymmetric angular pose. The six dancers, dressed in searing red, mesh these different dynamics into a jagged collage of movement that bristles with nervous energy. They switch direction and block momentum, constantly subject to opposing impulses; the effect is almost like cutting, splicing, cueing and rewinding segments of film. The action is driven by the motoric force of Kevin Volans’ score for prepared harpsichord (played on stage by Carole Cerasi), with crashing chords and tumbles of notes that seem to be running and falling at the same time.
crashing chords and tumbles of notes that seem to be running and falling at the same time
Later, the piece quietens: the music slows and steadies, and the cold blue lighting is bathed with washes of warm orange. The movement, though largely made from the earlier phrases, is now calmer, more intimate and more suggestively human. A short video of two of the dancers (by Richard Coldman) is screened on the backcloth; in contrast to the live action, these projected figures cut, cue and rewind effortlessly. In the end, the ‘theatre of the senses’ is realised not so much on stage as on screen: it is here that we can finally let go of the turbulent dynamics of live action and simply indulge our senses in the play of motion and shape, all the jangling physical effort of the dance evaporating into pure image. The piece finishes with two dancers reaching towards that perfect image, but each is tugged back by a partner, held back by the weight of their living human bodies.
If Surface Tension works towards an image as a depthless illusion, empty of symbolism, Phantasmaton, Jeyasingh’s latest work, does the reverse, powerfully interrogating the iconic image of a temple dancer, in full make-up and costume, that haunts this production. In Pete Gomes’ striking film animation, she appears first in grainy black and white, like an old photograph. She shimmers faintly, as if reflected in water. Gradually she moves, comes closer, blooms into lurid colour, and then fractures into patterns of pulsing neon pixels, as garish and synthetic as a Las Vegas billboard.
he bourrées like a ballerina but he gestures like a bharata natyam dancer: sexually ambiguous, stylistically ambidextrous.
The dance too often splinters into disparate components. In one episode the performers line up behind each other, accumulating ordered units of motion until they break up, scatter and disperse. And the opening solo shows Mavin Khoo as a curiously composite creature; he bourrées like a ballerina, à la bayadère, but he gestures like a bharata natyam dancer: sexually ambiguous, stylistically ambidextrous.
The dancers repeatedly hold their hands like mirrors in front of their faces, as if trying to recognise their reflections in the lifelines of their palms. This classic bharata natyam gesture, set against the video installation, hints at the complexity of the Indian dance tradition which has always been a cornerstone of Jeyasingh’s work: is it a projection or a reflection? Certainly, this work suggests, it is a construction.
Phantasmaton is as edgy and densely articulate as anything Jeyasingh has produced before and full of twitching, glistening surfaces. Its unsettling, bewitching power is also thanks to Joceyln Pook’s score, hauntingly sung by Natacha Atlas on stage behind one of Joanna Parker’s translucent hanging screens, part filigree purdah partition, part exploded screen of giant pixels. It has been nearly two years since Jeyasingh’s previous stage work, but this return is anthing but tentative: Phantasmaton is bold, visionary, and one of Jeyasingh’s best.