Shobana Jeyasingh’s current double bill provides a fascinating opportunity to track the connections between classical and contemporary dance. The pairing of Romance… with Footnotes, from 1993, with her new work Palimpsest, allows us both to look back to the classical tradition that informs her choreographic style, and to see the directions in which she has moved it.
The titles Jeyasingh gives her works are often suggestive of ways in which they can be usefully approached. Romance… with Footnotes, as she explains in her programme note, pairs two contrasting literary images: the romance, in which the writer is free to explore a personal vision, and footnotes, with their sense of academic reference, points of order. ‘Footnotes’, of course, also refers to the classical style that she uses, bharata natyam, with its characteristic percussive footwork.
Romance… with Footnotes, originally for five women and now reworked for six, opens with a short series of duets in which one dancer adopts an iconic classical pose bharata natyam equivalents of an arabesque or an attitude – while her partner circles her, and then slowly pulls her out of position until she overbalances, and has to move. The duets develop into leans and counterpulls, showing both the classical reference and the departure from it – an image that informs the whole piece.
The music too mixes these sources, cutting between two compositions (see also Paul Jackson’s article in this issue). The first is a series of jathis created by Karaikudi Krishnamurty – chanted rhythmic syllables which the dancers match with their footwork. In these sections, Jeyasingh explores the formal qualities of bharata natyam, with its clear spatial directions and sharply defined lines. The dancers are shaped into groups, their planes and angles articulated into refractive surfaces: a sparkling, crystalline geometry. The bharata natyam style emphasises positions, and when it’s executed at speed you scarcely register the transitions between them, as the dancers hit one position after another – an almost stroboscopic effect; or like a stop-motion film, accompanied by the drummed staccato of footbeats.
they traverse the stage, outstretched arms held stiffly from the scapula and angled at the elbow, fingers spread like notched flight feathers, or splayed into spiky talons.
The jathis are intercut with a commissioned score by Glyn Perrin, based on the ideas of metre and pulse and scored for bass clarinet and three cellos, with the musicians silhouetted across the back of the stage. These sections are typically freer, less stylised. A duet for Jasmine Simhalan and Natasha Bakht is full of sensual sways in the upper body. In another section, the six women, costumes iridescent like plumage, look like a flotilla of falcons: to a repeated musical fragment, a sparse downward trickle of notes, they traverse the stage, outstretched arms held stiffly from the scapula and angled at the elbow, fingers spread like notched flight feathers, or splayed into spiky talons.
Towards the end the piece quietens, the dancers gradually exiting to leave Simhalan performing an unhurried, centred solo, as if, at this still point of the dance, she’s absorbing the turbulent flux of styles and energies that have formed the turning world around her. We too are left to contemplate the route the dance has taken, as the dancers return to the opening duets, finally ending rooted in a classical pose.
Like Romance… with Footnotes, the title of the second piece has a literary reference. A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been erased and overwritten so that the underlying inscription is obscured, though it leaves traces that may be glimpsed through the overlying text. It’s something of a current buzzword, in the air at the moment: it’s the title of Gore Vidal’s autobiography for example, as well as the central image running through Salman Rushdie’s last novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh. (It’s also, incidentally, the metaphor that Freud used to describe the workings of memory.) In Jeyasingh’s piece, the idea of layers itself operates on different levels; one of these is of a contemporary style overlying a classical one.
As the lights go up, three figures are seen downstage, their backs towards us. As with the beginning of Romance, they’re in a recognisable classical pose; but whereas Romance had carefully shown us both the classical form and its development, here the contemporary bursts in on the stage. The three dancers walk slowly upstage, the lights brighten, and the other dancers break across their stately procession. Freer and more expansive than anything we’ve seen before from this company, the dancers play fast and loose with the style of their training. Arms are flung out wide, a leg swing pulls the body to the floor. Straight-legged leaps launch into space, sinuous torsions or jagged distortions yank the body off-centre into spurts of motion. At one point the dancers perform a canon across the stage diagonal, each picking up on the preceding movement and adding her own to it. More than in previous works, you get a sense of their individual movement qualities – Jasmine Simhalan strong and grounded, Natasha Bakht with curves and in the upper body, Savitha Shekhar fleet and precise.
If in Romance the choreography – the movement writing – was almost calligraphic, its characters carefully formed, here it’s like handwriting scribbled across the space: cursive, wayward, idiosyncratic. And though the dancers occasionally seem not yet at ease with so much impulse, breath and momentum, these are qualities that will improve with practice (the floor rolls in Romance are certainly looking more fluid now than when they last performed it).
In her 1995 piece Raid, Jeyasingh added different movement sources to her classical base – from the sport, kabbadi, and from the martial art kalari – setting blocks of movement against each other. Where Raid felt like a foray into this broader territory, Palimpsest takes a bold step into it. Now also including the dance form chhau in its choreographic palette, it’s freer with its styles, and weaves them together more seamlessly, so that you see complex, variegated movement phrases without necessarily recognising their underlying referents – a form which finds its aural counterpart when, towards the end, we hear a tape of the dancers all speaking at once: a sonorous texture of many languages, a soft, polyglot babble.
As this tape is played the dance shifts register, tipping the balance away from shaped phrases to expressive movement, and finally to the dancers themselves. After deploying some of the stylised expressive gestures of classical bharata natyam, the dancers move into a more everyday, naturalistic mode. They form intimate, conversational groups, occasionally looking over their shoulders at the audience, as if to wonder what we are doing there – or indeed what they are doing here.
The piece closes on a question mark: three women, seated in one of these confidential groups, slowly turn their heads to look at us. Jeyasingh had asked the dancers to make up their individual stories about these unspoken ‘conversations’ – without telling her. We too can only guess – they’re shared secrets between the women, and what they contain can only be imagined, never known.
Palimpsest positively pulsates with energy, from the throb of Graham Fitkin’s astringent, propulsive score (itself structured as six overlapping layers) to Keith Khan’s vibrant designs. The natty costumes, a fruity cocktail of fluorescent orange, lime-green and lemon-yellow, are sleeker versions of Jeyasingh’s more usual loose trousers with tunics tied at the waist. And the backcloth, a couple-coloured patchwork of coral pink and beige, darkens to green and purple under the changing lights. It’s as if we’re watching one of those time-lapse films of city streets, patterns emerging from the chaos of zooming traffic and milling crowds, neon hoardings illuminated by different phases of light as night follows day. And from this panoramic cityscape vision, the piece ultimately focuses down to the dancers: at the nexus of so many layers, they leave their own imprints on the flux of forms around them.
Romance had taken us on a circular journey that started and ended with classicism; in Palimpsest this tradition forms a more submerged, though ever-present stratum, and it’s opened out to a multitude of other influences. Palimpsest travels a more open-ended route along which traditions and styles merge, evolve and disperse, giving us glimpses of classical dance, martial arts, the styles of different dances, of different dancers – and in the process we see the company as dancers, as women, as individuals. Vital, contemporary, and sparkling with choreographic intelligence, it moves in deft quantum leaps across the borders that do, finally, separate the dancer from the dance.