AI PROFILE Dancing through the myths of time
Shobana Jeyasingh MBE, choreographer
It is particularly poignant that at the point of the 70th anniversary of India’s independence and Partition, the death knell of that archly Victorian construct the British Empire, Shobana Jeyasingh’s new dance debunks the 19th century European attitudes to the East that are still widely held, to impose authenticity on a persistent misconception.
“People often assume I’m doing something through classical dance” says the British Asian choreographer whose company is 30 years old next year. “But I don’t believe in the authentic in that sense, I believe in the authentic of now.”
There seem to be several starting points for the extraordinary career of Shobana Jeyasingh, not formally trained as a choreographer but who stepped into the British con- temporary dance scene in the 1980s and changed it for ever.
The rst came in India when from the age of six, along with all middle class Madras girls at the time, she was sent to dance classes to learn the classical bharatnatyam, a dance that bears the weight of Indian history and myth in its steps. “It was a hobby, it was never meant to be a career choice” she says. “Like Victorian girls learning to play the piano, it wasn’t part of mainstream life”.
The second was going to London in her early 20s to do Shakespeare studies, and towards the end of her degree she saw the great Indian actress, singer and dancer Surya Kumani perform at the Southbank Centre, became her pupil and discovered that bharatnatyam could be interpreted; she returned to India to learn technique, and back in Lon- don became a professional dancer.
“She gave me a taste of what it’s like to be on stage” Jeyasingh says “but I knew I was never going to be a technically good performer. I was most interested in ideas.”
A third start would be an overheard conversation in the bar at the Riverside Studios, where she had been performing as part of a concert programme and a friend overheard
the composer Michael Nyman saying he rather liked Indian rhythms. Jeyasingh looked Nyman up in the phone book, went to his Ladbroke Grove house and the resultant collaboration produced her first work, Miniatures, whose development into Configurations was commissioned for four female dancers by The Place’s John Ashtford for the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and is still in the repertoire. Shobana Jeyasingh Dance was born.
“It was frightening but interesting” she recalls. “I learned that it is not enough just to design dance, but to persuade other people to own the idea”.
The work developed through the 90s, and she collaborated with other choreographers, such as Richard Alston and Wayne McGregor. She had become part of The Place “family”, that also included companies like the explosive but short-lived V-TOL and the Cholmondeleys.
And it developed with the things she saw and read, the people she met. She saw Byzantine churches in Cyprus, having loved Yeats’s poem:
Where blood-begotten spirits come And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
It gave her another early piece, also called Byzantium. The Making of Maps came from seeing the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral. She was introduced by the Southbank Centre’s music director Gillian Moore to the beatbox star Shlomo who had a shared interest in the music of Steve Reich, and Bruised Blood (which takes its cue from the Harlem race riots) at the QEH in 2013 was the result. Her next piece, commissioned from 1418NOW for next year, will look at the 1918 influenza epidemic that killed more than the First World War.
“There is a remarkable consistency to Jeyasingh’s choreographic imagination” wrote The Guardian’s dance critic Sanjoy Roy in 2009. “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.”
In 2000 she was stricken by an auto-immune disorder that paralysed her legs and it took more than a year to recover, but she was back in the studio in 2002 and since then her work has seemed more focused, and hard-hit- ting. In 2015 her Southbank commissioned piece Material Men addressed a deeply troubling issue. “It’s about what happened at the end of slavery” she explains. “Europeans took people from colonies and shipped them over to work, and though pressure from social reformers led to the invention of ‘indentured labour’, it was actually not much better than slavery”.
Shobana Jeyasingh Dance is a long-standing Arts Council national portfolio organisation, on standstill funding since 2015 and will remain so until at least 2022, which against the continual rise in rehearsal space rental and commissioning costs makes survival hard, and de- pendent on the diligence of her board of trustees to raise money. She would love an associateship which would give her access to space and a collegiate atmosphere, but none is on offer. Surprisingly, the staging of her new piece, Bayadère – The Ninth Life, in October will be her first appearance at Sadler’s Wells.
We meet at Wayne McGregor’s studio in the Queen Elizabeth Park, the Olympic site, which she is borrowing from her old collaborator and where she is rehearsing the new dance, taking on the 1870s classical Russian ballet, La Bayadère.
The original tells the tale of an Indian temple dancer, an exotic figure of ambivalent morals in the European imagination, who is thwarted in love and dies the victim of upper-class betrayal. Her research revealed that the story goes back in European theatre history at least 40 years to when Orientalism became the rage in bohemian Western capitals. “The figure of La Bayadère had a huge following, especially in France and Germany where there were plays and operas, following Goethe’s poem The God and the Bayadère (of 1830). She personified the conception of the Eastern Exotic, but she has nothing to do with In- dia: she is a Europe-invented personage’.
There has always been a fascination with India’s temple dancers since Marco Polo rst wrote about them in the 13th century. In the 19th century it was like a door of the harem had been opened, Jeyasingh says, and she found that in 1838 an impresario, E C Tardivel, had sought to satisfy the Parisian hunger for the Oriental by bringing four actual temple dancers and three male musicians from the French Indian colony of Pondicherry. Critics were unimpressed – the dancers “dance with their feet, but that is all” one wrote, “... the ballet is insufferably tedious”. They did not t with the sexy European construct of La Bayadère.
Jeyasingh had seen the 2009 Royal Ballet production starring Natalia Makarova – mercifully without the blacking up of some of the cast that is still the practice with the Bolshoi. She found a review of the Tardivel show by Theophile Gautier, “who was a bit sad but he understood”, and she uses his review as her text. The title of her piece, Bayadère – The Ninth Life, implies that this should be the last word in a centuries old debate. Her cast includes dancers from Italy, Finland, Norway and Spain, and one ethnically Indian who lives in Australia.
In 30 years audiences have come a long way, as has British society. “Now there is something called ‘The British Asian’ with the accent on ‘British’”. Her early piece Byzantium had had a performance at the Wycombe Swan at which a reviewer criticised the lack of Asian faces in the audience. “I wrote back that the only Asians in High Wycombe are Pakistani taxi drivers and I didn’t see why Byzantium should be of interest to a Pakistani taxi driver.
“The audience for me should be people who like con- temporary dance, interested in ideas, whether Indian or not is beside the point. As Indians have become more integrated in Britain they can present themselves as more global, and it’s difficult to expect them to present them- selves as if still living in times of empire. There is a new way of looking at race, culture, ethnicity, and everybody is contributing to that – I see it every time I step on the Tube.”
Bayadere – The Ninth Life is at The Lowry, Manchester, on September 28 & 29 and at Sadler’s Wells on October 16 & 17.
1957 Born Chennai, March 26
1981 Moved to UK
1982 BA, Shakespeare Studies, Sussex University
1988 Forms Shobana Jeyasingh Dance 1991 Creates Byzantium 1993 Collaborates with Richard Alston on Delicious Arbour
1995 MBE for services to dance
1998 Collaborates with Wayne McGregor on Intertense
2000 While working on Surface Tension suffers auto-immune disorder, legs paralysed for a year
2003 Polar Sequences commissioned by Random Dance
2005 NESTA Dream Time Fellowship
2012 TooMortal performed at Dance Umbrella, Venice Biennale, Stockholm, London and London 2012 Festival
2008 Asian Woman of Achievement
2015 Material Men commissioned by Southbank Centre
2017 Bayadère – the Ninth Life premiere at The Lowry