Shobana Jeyasingh used screen projections in Fine Frenzy (1999)and Surface Tension (2000), but in her two most recent works they gained a new prominence. Phantasmaton, with digital video by Pete Gomes, was a proscenium performance for the company of six dancers, in which film formed one part of the stage picture. [h]Interland was a site-specific work created for the hall of London’s Greenwich Dance Agency, which included video (again by Gomes) and a live webcast (directed by Terry Braun) of dancer Chitra Srishailan in Bangalore, performing alongside London dancers Mavin Khoo and Sowmya Gopalan. Here she talks to Sanjoy Roy about the ideas, creation and performance of those two pieces.
Phantasmaton has a very strong image of a Bharata Natyam dancer, projected onto a jagged screen throughout the performance. The dancer moves very slowly, in long repeated loops, with pixels fragmenting, reforming and drifting. What was the idea behind manipulating that iconic image?
One of my starting points was the film Blade Runner. The city in Blade Runner, with its mix of decay and futurism, reminded me of Bangalore. And I was fascinated by a scene with a huge advertising screen showing a Japanese woman who tastes something, and then smiles slowly. The image had an incredible allure – a traditional but also very artificial image within an urban landscape. I was thinking about a presence like that for a Bharata Natyam dancer. Not a naturalistic likeness, but an image in which technology was itself part of the message.
Before Phantasmaton I’d made a piece for schools called Web, which experimented with digital effects on a Bharata Natyam image. Collaborating with digital artist Jo Hyde and Shinkansen [a digital arts organisation] helped me to explore the dialogue between image and digital manipulation, to understand some of the effects it could produce. I also learned more about the interaction of dance and film. For example, I realised that film edits introduce their own rhythm, and you have to consider how that relates to dance and musical rhythm. But because Web was made for schools I couldn’t push the ideas as much as I would have liked: there were practical limits on the stage design, on where the projection was placed.
For Phantasmaton I decided not to work with a digital artist per se, but with a film-maker who used digital effects. In Phantasmaton I wanted the image of the Bharata Natyam dancer to be a presence, as opposed to a projection. We tried to get away from a flat projection behind the dancers, and also to avoid a framed rectangular edge to the image, so that it didn’t look like snapshot. Joanna Parker, the set designer, came up with a layered screen with broken edges, set at mid-depth on the stage. If we’d had a bigger budget we might have had three or four screens, with the figure moving between them. Where there was enough stage depth in particular theatres, we did have three or four echoes of the main image right up to the wall, like layers behind the screen. So it didn’t feel like a snapshot, it was much less bounded.
What about the style of the film itself?
The film was in slow loops, without fast cuts. That also gave a kind of organic quality, a more believable presence than having the movements manipulated by editing. The figure was designed as a presence who was simply there all the time, rather than competing with the dancers in movement terms. In fact, I had initially thought of one film image, repeated and looped. Instead, we had four starting images, but the movement within each loop was very minimal. And the images were, I thought, quite seductive. For me the most successful was a close-up of the dancer just looking, in a very stylised Bharata Natyam manner. Pete’s genius was to capture the whole grace of that glance: how she looked and turned away, the pixels streaming from her face as if they’d caught the essence of the glance and carried it through. Sometimes capturing movement on film can bring extra qualities, through framing and editing, that aren’t necessarily part of the intention. But here the movement and the image were complementary, going in the same direction.
And why choose a black-and-white film?
We did look at colour, but the black-and-white image instinctively felt right. Sometimes black-and-white immediately signals “memory” – memory, and a kind of nostalgia. But Pete had constructed the image so that it didn’t have that sepia-tinted, photo-album look. Its pixels were constantly shifting, which gave a dynamic but also vulnerable quality. In fact, the film starts with just a fuzzy computer screen. Then the image appears, and then it starts slowly to move. So it’s like tuning in to a frequency rather than discovering a picture in an album.
Actually the biggest challenge to deal with was the stage lighting [by Lucy Carter]. The black-and-white projection needed a reasonably dark stage, but if the stage were too dark you wouldn’t properly see the dancers or the set. So there was a whole balancing act through the performance because each of those elements has its own demands on the lighting.
In [h]Interland the projections were much more in the foreground than in Phantasmaton. There were three of them, much larger in scale, screened onto the different surfaces of the building’s architecture. It produced a very different effect from Phantasmaton. Was it a very different conception?
Again, I didn’t want the screens to be like projections. Even before we decided what the films were going to be, we had to decide where exactly they would be placed. When I first saw the screens, they seemed too defined and functional, but then I realised that they were like huge billboards. My first metaphor for the space was of a collection of motorways and roads, and these screens did work like giant roadside hoardings. Then once the lighting design came in – which I couldn’t quite imagine till I saw it – the whole thing was transformed because Lucy managed to make those harsh outlines of the screens disappear. I’d also been worried about the drab walls, because though the building has wonderful architectural features, emotionally it has a local-government feel. But Lucy’s lighting managed to erase everything that I didn’t want seen, including those walls. So then the screens became spaces of activity rather than projections onto surfaces.
How did the screens integrate with the other elements?
Of course there were many other elements, the movement and the architecture, different places, scales and times. But I wasn’t making a cohesive statement where all those elements fitted in, I just wanted to draw attention to them. Different images and possibilities hit the eye, and even before one finished another one would come through. For me it was a very personal, autobiographical piece, although I hadn’t set out to do that. It was my own experience of time, space, distance and culture, and I don’t have a grand narrative to link all that up. Some people felt that the dance in [h]Interland should have resolved those questions. I could have gone down another avenue and used a lot of dancers, in architectural formations – but the building itself supplied that aspect. In fact originally I was thinking of having just one dancer, though in the end I used two. The dancers had a kind of symbolic role rather than an actual role. And instead of resolution there was just an ending, when the lift at the back of the hall closed and went down.
There were three types of film. One was a live webcast of Chitra on a hotel rooftop in Bangalore. Another was a recorded and manipulated image of Chitra getting on a motorbike, and a third was a luridly coloured letterbox-format loop of Bangalore traffic. What were the different qualities brought out in those three projections?
Jo [Parker] placed them in a triangle, with webcast Chitra on top, filmed Chitra on stage left, and the letterbox video on the right. With the two video films I wanted to emphasise artificiality, because an edited film is always one degree removed from its reference. That influenced the choice of footage and the treatment of colour. I remember saying to Pete that if there was grass, I wanted it to be blue. I didn’t want anything to look natural.
Then there was the contrast between the two films of Chitra: the recorded Chitra, who was completely controlled, and the webcast Chitra live in Bangalore, where you couldn’t determine exactly what was going to happen. And if you had tried to control and co-ordinate the webcast with the rest of the performance, you would have lost the flavour of the medium. That unknowable, not quite synchronised quality brought a different kind of presence to the theatre. There was the real life presence of the dancers, the manipulated film presence, and also this other strange, mediated presence – an ethereal presence that I found quite wonderful.
Chitra was on a Bangalore roof terrace in the middle of the night while simultaneously taking part in a performance in Greenwich on the evening before. Did she have any cues or feedback to follow during the performance itself?
No, she didn’t even hear the music. She just had a countdown to start. But after each day we were emailing, so I gave feedback in that way between performances. And at the end of the show we were on mobile phones, so there was someone there telling her when to bow. But the only way you could have co-ordinated that accurately would be if you had a satellite link which gave you complete control – but that would be like building a private road through the sky from Greenwich to the Park Hotel in Bangalore. So you could only use the connections already available, and hope there wasn’t too much traffic.
Co-ordination must have been one of the biggest tasks, with three projections running, a live link with Bangalore, and the dancers making entrances and exits on different levels of the building.
The dancers timed their entrances with stopwatches, because in the hinterland of the performance space they couldn’t hear the music. We timed how long it took the lift to go down, how long the dancers took to go from one side of the building to the other – they had to go through the basement and then through a long room and upstairs. The timeline was set to zero at the start of the performance, and that mechanical time was a thread that linked all the different strands – music, dance, film, webcast, lighting. At first I thought the performers might not enjoy it, that it might feel too mechanical – but actually they relished the different mechanics that were brought into play.