25 June 2012
Nina Rajarani MBE speaks to Shobana Jeyasingh MBE
Nina Rajarani MBE speaks to Shobana Jeyasingh MBE about Shobana Jeyasingh Dance’s new production Classic Cut which has just completed a successful tour of the UK this spring and is touring internationally in the latter part of 2012 and next year.
In 2013 Shobana Jeyasingh Dance celebrates 25 years of innovation and to celebrate this important landmark in the company’s history, an exciting three-year programme of artistic work has been created, as well as education, participation and learning. The first work in this programme is Classic Cut.
Classic Cut revisits the past and takes a bold step into the future. The ISTD South Asian Dance Faculty has written syllabi for Kathak and Bharatanatyam dance examinations along similar lines – making age-old classical dance traditions relevant today – which is why this production by Shobana Jeyasingh Dance drew the Faculty’s attention in particular.
NR: Originally, you started choreographing for your company using primarily Bharatanatyam vocabulary. Since then you have been incorporating other styles of movement, including western classical and contemporary styles and martial art. What has inspired these choices in vocabulary?
SJ: I see choreography as creating a narrative for the body. In my case I wanted to create a body that exhibits the cultural improvisations that I notice on an average bus in London. So I looked for dancers who are multilingual in dance techniques. The challenge is to find structural and aesthetic coherence in the face of multiplicity – this continues to keep me working!
Do you have a favourite?
Obviously Bharatanatyam is the technique that I feel at home in; its use of weight and its use of detail are always present in my choreographic choices. Although the rhetoric of the dance may be absent in what I have made I think its core script is always present, like the foundation of a building that is unseen but underpinning everything.
Classic Cut engages a cast of dancers with Bharatanatyam training specifically. How does it look different to your recent works?
As it is written with such a specific classical technique it is bound to be different to the broadly contemporary work that I have made recently. As the name implies, it is classical but it also incorporates an attitude to the classical.
Configurations use Bharatanatyam mainly in the vocabulary of the dance but the choreographic structures are personal and invented. There was at times a tension between what I wanted to do compositionally and what the technique allowed me if I wanted to be faithful to it and mostly I chose the latter.
Dev kahan hai? (Where is Dev?) was about using quotes from the Bharatanatyam nritya repertoire and seeing whether that could be used to say something about classicism in general. I expanded the sakhi role to a chorus (as in a Greek play) and used this to deconstruct the more classical nayika and nayaka. In the end it became a dialogue between both these parties where similarities emerged.
In your opinion, are there any limitations to the traditional Bharatanatyam vocabulary when creating such work?
All techniques have limitations. They won’t be strong and specific if they allowed everything in. It is the rules of Ballet, Bharatanatyam, Tap dance and so on that give them their power. My dance work, Faultline, for instance, needed some dancers with Bharatanatyam expertise as well as other skills. The dancers that I choose tend to have the physical intelligence to read movements that may be unfamiliar and make it authentic to them. I also choose dancers who enjoy weighted movement and have an instinct for formal lines.
How would you sum your choreographic journey from the onset of your company to what you have become now? How radically do you think you have changed, if at all? When I watched Classic Cut, it almost felt as though you were making a full circle and that a dancer with exclusively Bharatanatyam training could once again find a place in your company.
I think I have been asking the same questions about structure and composition that I was when you danced in Byzantium! Hopefully I have got a bit better at answering these questions over the years! I have always been more interested in compositional strategies and designing movement than in the historical particularities of the various movement genres. Dev kahan hai? has a lot in common with Exit No Exit (a piece I made a few years ago) compositionally. What you have to choreograph with is so dependent on outside factors. On the other hand how you choreograph with whatever material – that is where the choreographic signature lies. There has never been a time when I have not wanted to choreograph on Bharatanatyam dancers.
Is there a more ready connection than was visible between Dev kahan hai? and Configurations to have paired them in the double-bill?
One is inspired by the nritta aspect and the other by the nritya aspect.
In Dev kahan hai? the abhinaya aspect of Bharatanatyam is evoked to show longing and anticipation. In Classic Cut, what inspired this shift to facially expressive/gestural movement from previous works where the body is more the means of expression?
In Dev kahan hai? I explored the nritya aspect of Bharatanatyam which I had not done before. Facial expressions obviously are integral to this. In Configurations, where the story of the dance was told through space and time, the face then became another physical adjunct, such as the limbs or the fingers.
What was the reasoning behind having the film prelude?
The film contained images that were generally evocative of a location (India, both classical and everyday) which were then looped to continue throughout the piece. The images were soft-edged and fluid and hopefully kept a sense of anticipation and a feeling of almost there but not quite. The letterbox format and the concertina screen gave the dynamic of the film a particular dream-like quality. Anticipation and longing are themes from Bharatanatyam that I wanted to evoke. The way the images functioned in the background also highlighted the dancers in the foreground.
Why the angular, panelled screen for the film when the dance itself was non-linear?
It made the images flow in a stylised way.
In Dev kahan hai? the two classical ‘protagonists’ were seen in lighter-coloured more lyrical costumes, with the female dancer wearing the full Bharatanatyam head jewellery; whereas the four other dancers forming the ensemble were in black, more edgy attire sporting sunglasses. How did you conceive the concept for the costumes?
Costumes are always a product of long research and trials by myself and the costume designer. The final colour decisions are often made with the lighting design in mind during technical week. The costumes are usually a way of communicating the themes and narratives of a piece and this was specially true in the case of Dev kahan hai?
Configurations is a work celebrated for bravura use of speed and stunning detail. For its latest version in Classic Cut does gender imbue the choreography with different qualities?
The gender balance rose from the availability of dancers. I don’t think gender makes a difference to the essence of Configurations.
I found it ironic that Configurations, which is more grounded in classical Bharatanatyam vocabulary, gained the greater applause from the audience. To me, that made a statement about the place of the classical form.
Configurations is more direct and always draws a warm response from the audience. Michael Nyman’s music is fabulous. Dev kahan hai? is more of a thoughtful piece and people respond to this in a different way – by asking questions.
How do you view the music-dance relationship if taking traditional Bharatanatyam as a departing point and has this influenced your choreographic choices?
Configurations was based totally on the literal relationship between music and dance. There is a beauty and a comfort in this synchronicity. In Dev kahan hai? music was used more impressionistically, like in a film, to create mood and location.
From the point of view of your overall artistic vision for the piece, could Configurations have worked equally well with a strong quartet of Indian classical musicians rather than live music by the Smith Quartet?
Configurations is like a tillana because the story is in the structure. Nyman’s music is composed and scored for a string quartet with its particular arrangement of instruments. So, transposing it to Indian instruments would change it utterly, especially the harmonic dimensions. The piece would have also lost much of its artistic tension which comes from the juxtaposing of opposing traditions.
What avenues do you see traditional Bharatanatyam taking in a society that expects more cutting-edge choreography? And most importantly, from the point of view of the work of the ISTD and for dancers who may be trained exclusively in Bharatanatyam, what opportunities exist if they aspire to work with a company like yours?
There are successful choreographers such as yourself who provide work for classical dancers. Ideally there would be more classical dance companies (a Royal Bharatanatyam Company such as the Royal Ballet) who would do the repertoire that the dancers have worked at perfecting. I agree that there should be more opportunities for Indian classical dancers to do the type of work that they want to do – not everyone wants to do contemporary work. I don’t think the contemporary neutralises the classical or vice versa. We all have different journeys that we want to make as artists and it remains a struggle to get started and to carry on journeying. Whether the audience want to see and witness our journeys is another question! The ‘D’ in Dance obviously stands for Difficult!
Nina Rajarani MBE