A preview of Shobana Jeyasingh’s Bruise Blood (2009)
Trained in a classical Indian dance tradition, Shobana Jeyasingh remade it in her own image: cosmopolitan and urbane.
Born in Madras (now known as Chennai) in 1957, Jeyasingh studied the classical Indian dance style bharatanatyam as a child. After an itinerant upbringing which included Sri Lanka and Malaysia, she arrived in the UK in 1981 for a master’s degree in Shakespearean studies, after which she began performing as a classical Indian dancer.
But she grew dissatisfied not just with the traditional touring circuit for Indian dance, but also with its traditional presentation. A key moment was when she balked at the idea of a photographer taking a backstage picture of her in full temple-dancer costume, drinking a can of Coke – but on reflection, she realised these clashes weren’t contradictions, but simply two aspects of her life.
Jeyasingh stopped dancing and began choreographing instead, launching her own company in 1988 with the all-women quartet Configurations, set to a commissioned score by Michael Nyman. It was a new and fresh direction both for Jeyasingh and for dance audiences, and immediately attracted considerable attention. Throughout the 1990s, Jeyasingh pushed her choreography forward: she expanded her company to six women, experimented with different music, costumes and design, and also worked with guest choreographers including Richard Alston and Wayne McGregor.
In 2000, while premiering Surface Tension (the first time she had used a male dancer), she was struck by a rare auto-immune disorder which left her with paralysis in both legs, and for a year she was barely able to walk. But in 2002, recovered, she returned forcefully to the stage with Phantasmaton, an ambitious work featuring live voice and film. Since then, Jeyasingh has continued to head her own company (with an increasingly diverse range of dancers), as well as making work for other companies (Random, City Contemporary Dance Company of Hong Kong, Ballet Black), and various site-specific works.
Jeyasingh was part of a groundswell of pioneering British Asian artists who, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, created new work that broke into the mainstream of British cultural life; one reason why the field is more open today.
Watching Shobana Jeyasingh
There is a remarkable consistency to Jeyasingh’s choreographic imagination. She has a keen instinct for composition – how to shape and structure dance phrases so the whole adds up to more than a sequence of parts. She often references bharatanatyam, though sometimes it ends up as no more than a trace. And the choreography itself is plotless, but shaped from ideas that are often in tune with the experience of the metropolitan migrant: ideas about crossing boundaries, travelling between centres and margins, displacement, diversity and so on.
It’s also remarkable how far that outlook has taken her: you could scarcely recognise the choreographer of Configurations as the same choreographer of Intimacies of a Third Order 10 years later, or Just Add Water? 10 years after that. In the earliest works, classical bharatanatyam was extended and reconfigured to contemporary music. It increasingly became one element among many, including martial arts, ballet, modern dance and everyday gesture. Jeyasingh began to separate dance from music, her costumes became more urbane, and she experimented with film, text, and technology – never gratuitously (there’s always a logic to her work), but often surprising her audience. Looking over her work is like seeing a classical style become modern and then postmodern in the space of a decade.
Jeyasingh’s most important collaborators are perhaps her composers; over the years these have included Michael Nyman, Kevin Volans, Glyn Perrin and Django Bates. Her most regular designers are Lucy Carter (lighting) and Ursula Bombshell (costumes). Distinctive dancers from the early years include Jasmine Simhalan and Natasha Bakht; later Mavin Khoo and Rashpal Singh Bansal (who also choreographed a section in Jeyasingh’s Transtep), and more recently Yamuna Devi.
Jeyasingh had to hire bodyguards for one of her team. Illayarajah, the composer of her piece Raid (1995), was such a big shot in the Tamil film industry (known as Tollywood) that he always travelled with an entourage, including a PA and bodyguards.
In her own words
“In the best possible world, structure is an emotional experience. But you also need an audience that is empathetic to dance structures.” – Interview with Donald Hutera, Dance Umbrella News, 2009
“I think in some ways that the cultural agenda becomes overblown and actually it stops people appreciating what you are trying to make them see … I don’t think artists ever want to be accepted as examples of social categories, they want to be accepted as examples of good artists.” – Interview with Neil Nisbet, article19.co.uk, 2008
“I find science fiction the most inspiring [film] genre for choreography … Like good choreography, good science fiction – even though it’s about the future – is really a metaphor for now that uses time, space and bodies to make its narrative … That’s what I hope I’m doing in my work also.” – Interview with Donald Hutera, Pulse, 2009
In other words
“Jeyasingh’s productions work because, while never quite letting go of their roots, they embrace issues far beyond the range of the traditional form.” – Luke Jennings, Observer, 2006
“Jeyasingh finds a secure beauty as she contemplates the breakdown of the old choreographic order.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2002
“Long one of the most individual voices on the British dance scene, Shobana Jeyasingh never ceases to surprise us. Just when you think you have her figured out, she does something with her choreography that causes you to rethink it.” – Debra Craine, Times, 2003
“Geography is history. Discuss.”
Questions of time, place, travel and identity often crop up in Jeyasingh’s work.
“Does every hand gesture have a meaning?”
Jeyasingh is often paired with Akram Khan, both contemporary dance choreographers with backgrounds in classical Indian dance, but the resemblance ends there. Her choreography has more in common withWilliam Forsythe‘s post-classical aesthetic, or Wayne McGregor‘s densely articulated structures.
Now watch this
Excerpts from Romance* with Footnotes (1993), one of Jeyasingh’s early works
Film sequence from (H)Interland, a multimedia site-specific work from 2002
Preview of Bruise Blood (2009)
Where to see her next
See the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company website for performance dates.