Dance Umbrella 2007: A Feeling for Practice
by Annie Wells
October 7, 2007 -- Purcell Room, London, UK
Hosted by Dr. Dick McCaw, British and Indian dance matriarchs Siobhan Davies and Shobana Jeyasingh got together to discuss and demonstrate working methods. Both were generous and candid in the way they shared their artistic inspirations and considered the ways their dance-works might be read. Alongside such absorbing insights into the minds and methods of these two great choreographers; the “live and unplugged” demonstrations of extracts from Davies’ current work “Two Quartets” and Jeyasingh’s “Faultline” and “Transtep” by company dancers came as an additional treat. Deborah Saxon and Sarah Warsop complemented Davies; Navala Chaudhari, Kamala Devam and Mandeep Raikhy were there for Jeyasingh. The afternoon was rounded off with further engaging discussion triggered by questions from the Purcell Room’s busy floor.
The women began in turn with tantalisingly brief resumés of the careers that had brought them to this current point. It was interesting to learn how each woman had come relatively late to dance. Davies was a seventeen year old art-school student when she attended her first Graham class in London. Jeyasingh was a graduate of Sussex University and teacher of English literature when she returned to her native Chennai to continue the Bharatanatyam training she had begun as a child. Both went on to work as professional dancers. While in early days Davies was mainly associated with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LDCT), Jeyasingh spent much of the time alone touring Britain with the classical Indian repertoire.
Explaining their transitions from dancer to choreographer, each spoke of what could be described as a common need to find their personal dance voice. In both cases it could be said this arose out of a certain sense of being bound in their expression by the defined, technique-based and, most crucially, “acquired” styles of Graham or Bharatanatyam in which their bodies had become steeped. The women spoke of being driven by a desire to evolve dance vocabularies more apposite to who they were and the concerns they wanted to explore and express.
The process Davies went through to shape a separate choreographic identity has often been broken down by both her and dance scholars into three clear stages. It began in 1976 when she first moved away from the support of LDCT to study and perform in New York. Here to “undo” what she referred to as “the Graham habits” that had so far “marked” her body, she attended a lot of ballet and Cunningham classes. Her aim was also to blow away “pre-conceptions” of what dance should be by exposing herself to as great a variety of dance performance as possible. In addition, it was at this point that she began to exercise her desire “not to use always accepted dance movements” [Davies cited in Gow 1976: 142].
The second stage of the process began in 1982, when with LDCT colleague Richard Alston and Australian choreographer Ian Spink she founded the company “Second Stride”. In this time she enjoyed the mutually beneficial effects of developing alongside others artists with shared or similar goals. While Alston searched likewise for a distinctive choreographic voice, Spink was equally keen to embrace the principle of cross-arts collaboration in the production of work.
The third and final stage of her choreographic evolution began in 1988 when she established The Siobhan Davies Dance Company. It is within this context of her own company that she has naturally had and continues to have the greatest license to explore ideas and develop choreography in whatever direction she chooses.
Jeyasingh spoke poignantly of the “choreographic birth” she pin-pointed as occurring for her between 1988 and 1989. She explained how it came as a direct result of a two-fold compulsion. Not only did she feel the need to give physical form to the strong sense of dislocation she felt as an Asian woman living in Britain, but also to bridge the gap between what she referred evocatively to “as the drafty corridor” between herself as the living, breathing, thinking person she was and herself as the iconic, artistic figure she became when performing on stage as a Bharatanatyam dancer.
In other words, she wanted to find a movement vocabulary that would embrace and respect each diverse aspect of who she was and what she wanted to represent as woman and artist – Indian and otherwise. While it was by no means her intention to discard the Bharatanatyam, she wanted to shape it to a form that made less of a distinction between concerns that were conventionally seen to be those of life and concerns conventionally seen to be those of art.
Moving constantly between the micro- and macrocosmic, the question of how countries and cultures can co-exist within one individual, one family, one street, city, country and world has since been the central driver of her work. The artistic tension that has made it so successful exists within the simultaneous realisation of the harmony and discordance that subsist within such situations of ever streaming collisions and contradictions.
To give access to this as concept in application, Jeyasingh talked of how, for example, her study of English Renaissance literature has impacted her work as a choreographer. It caused her to focus on the significance lent to surface impressions in art and in life. She consequently identified the apparent clash between the alternatively cynical and weighty terms in which western and eastern cultures tend to view the ornate.
As a result, one of her choreographic aims has become to explore the effect the West’s distrust of the “superficial” has had on the people and forms of cultures that value it. She looks for ways to weave the elaborate into her work in such a way that comments on how this happens in daily life – she gave the instance of a British Asian woman walking down a London street in a sari and snow-boots. She also seeks to allow it all the positive significance and beauty she believes it does possess.
Davies used Warsop to demonstrate how her choreographies will often be made up of re-configured versions of movement sequences that she or her dancers have “found” in daily life. For example, the part Warsop dances in Davies’ latest work, “Two Quartets,” is fundamentally based on the throw and catch of a ball. They showed how this had been broken down into eight points and explored for its infinite dance potential before being set for ultimate performance.
A special mention should go to Saxon for the pertinent manner in which she used words and movement to articulate the visceral manner in which dancers work with Davies to create their roles. Her frank demonstration of how she seeks to inhabit and understand her body in motion gave me, for one, a valuable insight into how vitally connected to each minute detail of corporeal function these dancers must be to produce the results they do.
Jeyasingh couldn’t have found a better way to synopsise the import of her choreographic identity than through dancers Devam and Chaudhari. The blue-eyed, blond, pointedly non-Asian “surface” of Devam gives her incredible command of the Bharatanatyam technique all the more mind-blowing power. Highlighted when she danced a section of “Faultline” alone, this fact was thrown into even greater relief as the more “Asian-looking” Chaudhari danced the more western-influenced role against her in a section from “Transtep”.
In the space of a couple of hours, two of Britain’s greatest dance-makers had, in the invaluable terms of personal testimony, given a far fuller and more comprehensive sense of long and productive careers than one could ever have hoped to get through any other means. Their practice has, in both cases. produced and will hopefully continue to produce bodies of work that are varied and stimulating in nature. Most interesting was to be asked to consider the work of two choreographers who would not immediately be placed together, within the same time and space. This consequently opened the mind to the possibility of finding commonality in both the inspirations for and outcomes of work ostensibly different in nature.
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