Shobana Jeyasingh trained in bharatanatyam, and when she formed her company back in 1988 she was clear that the abhinaya aspect of that style – its vocabulary of gestures and expressions used for narration and characterisation (we might call it the ‘acting’ side of dance) – was not her interest. Instead, it was nritta, the formal lexicon of steps, sequences and rhythms (the ‘dancing’ side) that attracted her. Broadly speaking, that outlook has remained with her – so it was fascinating that her latest piece Dev Kahan Hai? (Where is Dev?) took an archetypal abhinaya scenario – a woman waiting for her beloved – as its point of departure.
But Dev Kahan Hai? is abhinaya as filtered through the prism of Jeyasingh’s very particular mind; characteristically, she does not leave this set-up unexamined. The woman, Sri Thina Subramaniam, may enter an empty stage, but it is already dense with the imagery: Pete Gomes’ video has already projected a collage of blurry passers-by, high-definition headshots, roads and railtracks. Subramanian’s “awaiting” solo is far from solitary, but placed within a busy world through which the stutters, whispers and echoes of Niraj Chag’s electronic score gust like dusty breezes.
White-clad Subramaniam is only partly a traditional heroine: she mimes looking in the mirror, adorning herself with jewelry or listening for distant footsteps, but without the correctness of a classical dancer (she has some twisting turns and slashing jumps, for example, in which you sense both force and frustration). And if the traditional waiting scene is like a story put on pause so that its inner emotions can be elaborated, Jeyasingh now puts that whole scenario itself on hold in order to elaborate something altogether different. Subramaniam is joined by four dancers sporting cool shades and chic black outfits. They echo her poses and gestures as they cluster around her, like afterimages taking on a life of their own. Naturally, this rather undermines the seriousness of Subramaniam’s character: if a bunch of hipsters are striking poses of longing behind you, it’s hard to have your own expressions taken at face value. Something that began by looking more like acting (expression), now starts to look more like dancing (form).
The rest of the piece is something of a tug of love between two different worlds. In the white world are Subramaniam and Parshwanath Upadhye (the Dev of the title, one assumes), constantly being whisked up into the twilight zone of the hipsters who wear sunglasses in the dark. Two moments serve as pivots between these worlds. In the first, the dancers form a kind of conveyor belt, appearing to pick up ornaments at one end while at the other Subramaniam mimes putting them on, executing a little twirl as each passes by. The second is simply a mirror image of the first, this time with Upadhye as the axis. In both, you sense a precarious balance of power: are the unrequited lovers the cogs driving a loop of devotees, or are they mechanical dolls, spun around by their admirers? Who’s zooming who?
Overall, the Shades (as I came to think of the hipsters) win out. The lovers stay separated, and are often frankly sidelined. The Shades get together though, and how: group sequences and duets show them in complex, combative mode, dodging and feinting like boxers. You sense a stylistic connection with the lovers-in-white, in the angle of a wrist or the rhythm of a step, but the energy is more martial-arts than classical, with sinuous weaves, hovering balances and a sharper attack. It’s like a freeform modern-jazz riff on the lovers’ old-time tune – cooler, and altogether more unpredictable – and the feeling is liberating.
Departure and liberation have, in one way or another, been driving forces behind Jeyasingh’s choreography from the beginning. Finishing this double bill was a reprise of her first work, Configurations from 1988. Other than Michael Nyman’s commissioned score for string quartet, it has been substantially remade (you might as well call it Re-Configurations). Originally a female trio, the current version is now a mixed quartet, and whereas the first version consisted largely of classical bharatanatyam sequences sharply pinned to the rhythms of Nyman’s score, this reworking has a much looser relation both to the rhythm and to bharatanatyam. Without trying to tell a story, Jeyasingh has added much greater dramatic impetus and variety to the choreography through purely formal means – in the torque of a torso, in the beats skipped in a step, in the facing and placement of the dancers. It is a more sophisticated piece in every way than the piece she made in 1988 – a return to the past that also indicates her distance from it.