When you watch a piece by Shobana Jeyasingh, there are usually a few things you can count on. You’ll be able to see a connection to bharatanatyam, the classical Indian dance style that she trained in, though it will be far from classical: she will have played around with the steps and the conventions, and it will be cut in with quite different moves, whether from other dance styles, from martial arts or from everyday movements. Then, she’ll have worked a lot on composition – how blocks and phrases of movement can be positioned, repeated, transformed and fitted together so that the whole adds up to more than a sequence of parts. Finally, although the piece will probably not specify a definite story or subject, you can bet that the ideas behind it are in fact highly specific; it’s just that Jeyasingh doesn’t spell them out so much as use them as starting blocks.
Faultline, made in 2007, had three such starting points. First was Jeyasingh’s awareness of public anxiety around young Asians – particularly men – because of fears about terrorism (some of her own dancers had been stopped and questioned by police). Second was Gautam Malkani’s novel Londonstani, a story about young Asian men in southwest London, written in a razor-sharp, slangy style. And third was a recording Jeyasingh had heard in which a soprano voice had been electronically manipulated; she liked the tense, unsettling effect. Those became structuring ideas for the piece, and in rehearsal the dancers explored male groups, male-female relationships, ways of expressing disturbance or dislocation, and how to be slangy in movement instead of words.
For Jeyasingh’s new piece Bruise Blood, the starting point was music. She had met vocal performer Shlomo (“the human beatbox”) and discovered they shared a passion for the music of Steve Reich. Both were taken by an early piece called Come Out (1966), in which Reich took a fragment of recorded speech, doubled it up, and looped the results so that the words increasingly slip out of phase. “It’s like a study in persistence,” says Jeyasingh. “Reich lets the whole process take its natural course. And in the end it’s amazing how this wall of sound has been built out of just one phrase.”
That is Jeyasingh the composer talking. But Bruise Blood also shows Jeyasingh the pick-and-mix stylist. “Through Shlomo I became interested in the idea of remixing,” she says. “I realised that it’s what I do anyway, with bharatanatyam. You use the parts that you like as hooks, but you mix them in with other things.”
For the music, she invited composer Glyn Perrin to master the mix of Reich’s piece with Shlomo’s own take on it. For the movement itself, though, she went to the actual words of Come Out – “I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them” – spoken by a 19-year-old black man, wrongly arrested during the 1964 Harlem riots, who had to reopen the wounds on his body to convince police he’d been beaten up. From that specific event Jeyasingh took a more general point: the idea that someone offering up their own body as evidence is also what dancers do. With that in mind, the dancers worked on creating quite biographical movements, things that came from their own histories and experiences.
Is Bruise Blood a companion piece to Faultline? In the background of both are young non-white men, in trouble with authority. “Actually no,” says Jeyasingh. “On the face of it you can see the similarity, but it’s coincidental. Faultline had that theme, but Bruise Blood is much more about ideas and music. It’s not about the Harlem riots or the dancers’ lives. Those were starting points, not end points.” Picture the raw material of Bruise Blood as analogous to the recorded voice in Come Out: the starting points is recognisable and specific, but what comes out at the end is neither a portrait or a message, but a composition.