'There’s a lot of drama inside cells' - Shobana Jeyasingh interview

Dance and Circus

The choreographer discusses her double bill Material Men and Strange Blooms

Over the course of her highly individual choreographic career, south Indian-born Artistic Director Shobana Jeyasingh has created work for a variety of venues and contexts including theatres, outdoor and indoor sites and on film. Ahead of her Brighton Dome double bill, she discusses her latest work Material Men - which contrasts in style between classical South Asian dance and hip hop - and her acclaimed 2013 piece Strange Blooms; an ensemble work inspired by the cellular life of plants.

Material Men features two different dancers performing two very different styles of dance. Tell me a little about the genesis of the piece - where did the idea come from to create Material Men and what do the dual dancers seek to represent / explore?

The idea really came when Wendy Martin (former Head of Performance and Dance at Southbank Centre) introduced me to the hip hop dancer Shailesh Bahoran from Amsterdam. What I found interesting about him was that he was an Indian who’d never been to India. His family had moved from India to Suriname as part of the huge migration of labour that happened under the European colonial powers. I thought it would be quite interesting to make a dance piece with him and another young Indian man in a similar position; Sooraj Subramaniam, who is an Indian dancer whose parents moved from India to Malaya – for the same reasons – and then went on to Australia. Both dancers found themselves living in Europe, both are products of this huge mass migration of labour. Now we read a lot about refugees in the papers – this huge migration of people – well, in the 19th century a similar thing happened, but for different reasons. The Dutch and the English, who both had colonies in South America and South East Asia, moved vast quantities of people from China and India to work in their plantations after slavery became illegal. Both Shailesh and Sooraj have that history in common – that’s why their grandparents ended up where they were. What also interested me is that these two men chose two very different dance styles to perform in. Shailesh chose hip hop – he saw it once in a shopping mall in Utrecht and just fell in love with it – and Sooraj chose Indian classical dance because his grandmother had been interested in the classical arts and encouraged him to dance.

Were you familiar with the two types of dance?

I was more familiar with classical Indian dance as I learnt it as a child, but my first brush with hip hop was when I was asked to mentor four hip hop dancers at Sadler’s Wells about 4 years ago as part of Jonzi D’s Back to the Lab. I did a lot of research into its history and I worked with some fantastic dancers. I was intrigued and amazed by the commitment to movement and how they generated movement – it’s very different to people who I normally work with which are people who have done degrees in dance at conservatoires and colleges. When I first put them in the studio I wasn’t sure they’d even get on as people – they didn’t know each other very well and were two very different kinds of young men. But actually, it wasn’t difficult for them to get on – they learnt a lot about each other and each other’s styles. I think they found the different styles quite inspiring, because they’re so diametrically opposite.

Some of the productions shots I’ve seen feature a sari – how is this involved in the piece?

The sari was something I thought about in week two – I wanted something visible that communicated what the dancers had in common, which is their historic ties to India. We played around with the sari and it created some really interesting images. On one level it looked like they were both sons of the same place, as they are both wrapped in it. People look at the sari as memory, as symbolising India, as a placenta that gives birth to these two men. Also, it’s an object of tension between the two men, and an object of partnership. It’s an iconic piece of clothing; it’s the oldest, untailored piece of clothing - it’s been around for thousands of years - that is still worn. It’s hugely popular in India, it’s very practical. At points in history people discard clothing – you’d never seen someone walking around in a crinoline or in Elizabethan dress in London now – but in India, the sari has proved so tough and versatile that it’s stood the test of time. You see women on building sites climbing up ladders and doing incredibly physical work, or in villages with people planting, or in offices or in call centres, and the sari seems to have given them a commonality. It’s an amazing item of clothing and in the piece it has lots of stories to tell.

What do musicians Elena Kats-Chernin and Leafcutter John bring to the piece?

Elena is the main composer of the piece. I heard her many years ago doing a wonderful piece of music called Clocks. I remember listening to it about 10 years ago. It’s wonderful that I’ve finally got a chance to work with her, and that was because of funding from the Drummond Fund who put choreographers and composers together. Elena lives in Australia, so the logistics were a bit challenging, but she brought this incredible, emotional quality to the music. She, like the dancers and myself, are all products of some kind of huge migration; she’s a Russian who’s settled in Australia, so there was a lot of empathy and understanding about the concept behind the work. Leafcutter’s work I heard a few years ago – at that point he was playing with a string quartet and I was really interested in the way he changed some of the qualities of the quartet to give it a 21st century digital world for it to live in. We thought it would be good to have parts of the music where we left the string quartet sound and then gave room for another type of sound to inhabit the stage. The string quartet have a very historic feel to it – they’re brilliant, and the piece in many ways is driven by that – but the very important shift in the story is provided by Leafcutter’s electronic music.

Material Men is being performed as a double bill with 2013’s Strange Blooms – how do the two pieces complement each other?

One of our audience members wrote to me and said something very interesting. In that, both celebrate journeys – in Strange Blooms, what we see is the pre-destined stories of plants. They move and act in ways they don’t have a choice – that’s what they’re programmed to do. Whereas Material Men is about human stories which are much more accidental – they’ve got more choice and are much more vulnerable to historical changes, so the two pieces offer up to different types of journeys.

I’ve read a quote in which you’ve said ‘one is always drawn to narratives that feature something that is about yourself’ – where do you fit into these pieces?

Material Men is one piece I can sit in really easily. Like Shailesh and Sooraj, I’ve also experienced dislocation – leaving my original country where my ancestors come from and making quite dramatic changes. I went from India to Sri Lanka to Malaysia to London. However, whether it’s Singapore, or Bangalore or London, there’s an amazing amount of similarity in the urban areas. Material Men is about the journey – leaving an original culture and finding this place which is urban but not pure. It’s where you have to contend with many different types of movement, of culture, of dance, but somehow in that mix finding something coherent. That’s really the challenge – finding coherence amongst all the flux and change. Everyone has to do it up to a certain extent – whether they’re moving from one part of the city to another, or from a town to a big city in the same country, one is always having to deal with change. Material Men is my attempt at trying to express coherence of that kind.

Strange Blooms is inspired by the cellular life of plants. It’s an incredibly unique concept – where did the idea come from?

In the last three years I’ve been doing a couple of projects which involved me going into scientist’s labs. I did a project where I had to research how cells divide, so I spent a lot of time talking to a Professor of Biochemistry at Oxford, and then at Kings College I did a project which involved a neurobiologist. I was interested in how people study things at a cellular level – a very different way to the way I did A-Level biology, which was much more static! Biology for me at that point was cutting up dead things and looking at them through a microscope. Now, with modern technology, they’re able to study cells almost in action – so, for example, the neurobiologist was studying the neurons of a zebrafish, but the fish was swimming under his desk in a tank and he was able to get a feed and watch it in real time. You realise that in fact cells are just incredibly active, dynamic things which also have a possibility of failure. There’s a lot of drama inside cells. I was in a panel once with a scientist called James Lovelock who has very interesting things to say about climate change and the way the world is going. He was basically saying that our only redemption is plants, because they are the only ones that are capable of putting the right level of oxygen back into the atmosphere… so the more we cut down plants and trees to create grasslands for cattle, the worst we’re making lives for ourselves. For a choreographer, when you think of plants they’re not the most active things – you don’t associate vast movement with them – but on a cellular level they are very turbulent beings, and that’s why I was interested.

You’re not one to perform conventionally – be that from a form or a spatial point of view – why? What attracts you to these unexpected methods or places?

I’m always curious – I guess that’s the first thing! I come from a pretty fragmented background; I’ve lived in four different countries, so my view of life has been very polydimensional. I think in dance I’m always trying to give expression to these differences I see and the similarities I see. Obviously when you make dance or theatre you have one kind of platform - and that’s a brilliant thing because you have nothing and you can create the whole metaphor yourself – from how much light there is and what you want to put in that space. There’s a freedom. When you have a site like 55 fountains at Somerset House, or church pews, then you have another equally amazing platform because lots of things are given – you’re already in a designed space and that forces you to choreograph in a very different way. I recently made a dance for film for a science exhibition, and the camera lens is another kind platform that I find absolutely fascinating. It’s the same skill choreographically – it’s about framing, it’s about choosing the right dynamic, what you foreground, what you background, how you control colour, light… all these other things.

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