When Shobana Jeyasingh made Configurations 25 years ago, nobody had seen anything quite like it. Jeyasingh had been trained in the classical Indian dance style bharata natyam, and after a chance meeting with contemporary British composer Michael Nyman, she wondered how their two different disciplines might work together. In answer to that question, she set out to make her first work of choreography. Her method was to write out a rhythmic “score” in six sections; Nyman used it as the basis for his String Quartet No. 2 while Jeyasingh timed the dancers’ steps to it. The result was Configurations, for four bharata natyam dancers and four string players, their shared timeline acting as a lynchpin holding the worlds of dance and music in almost perfect balance.
This dance and this music were, after all, made for each other.
The piece has an almost mathematical sense of structure: it’s as if dance and music are multipliers of the rhythmic line, generating patterns in space and in sound. Configurations also imparts a strange sense of double vision. On the one hand, it is surprising to see the percussive footwork and geometric lines of bharata natyam set to the more bowed texture of string instruments. On the other, the compositional coherence makes the juxtaposition appear entirely logical. This dance and this music were, after all, made for each other.
In reviving Configurations this year, Jeyasingh has also reimagined it: the musical sequence is slightly reordered, the costumes are different, and she has male dancers as well as female. The choreography is substantially the same, but has a greater pliancy in movement, direction and timing. So where the original Configurations had a very objective quality, the current version gives it more of a human face.
Strange Blooms, Jeyasingh’s latest work, looks markedly different from Configurations, but you can still sense a continuity, in the weight, precision and detail, in the formality of composition, the combination of surprise with logic. The piece was inspired by the study of plant life, but instead of the familiar poetic images often associated with plants – the fragility of leaves, the fleeting beauty of flowers – Jeyasingh focused on their cellular processes, their morphologies and patterns of growth, as registered in the lens of the time-lapse film or modelled by biomechanical animations, and the result is much speedier and more exacting than you might expect from a dance inspired by plants.
implicitly draws a connection between plant life and our own searching selves
The work is in four sections, each deriving from a different premise. In the opening, the dancers’ urgent spirals and turbulent entanglements suggests the profusion of plant life, the tenacious search and grip of tendrils, or the twisting stems of shoots as they strive towards the sun. If the first section is full of curves and torques, the second is a proliferation of fractured lines and thorny protrusions, based on the ordered, algorithmic ways that plant stems fork and multiply. The third part is based on the way that plant movement – roots reaching, pods splitting, petals splaying – is driven by cellular instabilities and differential tensions. The dancers form pairs and clusters but their individual actions are often antagonistic or counter-intuitive: one partner teeters as the other is planted to the floor; a tight grouping is composed of different planes, different speeds. In the final part, Jeyasingh variously distends or collapses the spaces between the dancers, implicitly drawing a connection between plant and human processes of evolution and hybridisation, of breaking boundaries and reconfiguring matter. We sense the cellular activity that has brought the dancers to this point, but now they take on a more human semblance, strange blooms though they be.