BIMBA DANCE THEATRE: ONE PLUS ONE EQUAL TWO
By THEA NERISSA BARNES
I witnessed Bimba Dance Theatre’s performance in Battersea Arts Centre’s intimate black box space. This space provided a close, ritual-like mood for audience members from various cultural backgrounds. All were brought to a hush as the lights dimmed for the beginning of Bimba’s Twilight Tempest of Love and Death. Twilight exists in its own time with its particular enchantment, creating its own world of events, relationships and consequences. These shadings, warmed with lights of amber and reds is inspired by Hindu mythology and Jamaican ritual, dance and music.
“How did I get here?” was Indra Thiagarajah’s rejoin to my request to talk about “process” and is an intriguing reply given by a choreographer whose experimentation seeks to re-frame as well as re-define movement significance and movement performance. This digging deep to alter appreciations requires the same tenacity exhibited by the Hindu legend of Savitri; a woman who braved death to save her husband. Hindu legend has it that Yama, the God of Death embodies the law and on death judges all humans deciding who is reborn or goes to hell. Savitri, a woman of intelligence and courage coupled with her relentless tenacity and faith to be with her husband, chicanes Yama to spare her husband. As the story is told, Savitri searches her country for a husband and fines Satyawan. Once she proclaims her intentions to her Father, the court astrologer foretells that Satyawan will die in a year. Three days before the predicted death Savitri fasts and prays and is prepared to face death with Satyawan. Savitri’s conversation with Yama is a banter of well-chosen words that traps Yama in a twist of words. Savitri is granted 3 wishes: sight for her father in law, return of their empire and prosperity, and worthy progeny. The catch is Satyawan is needed to create the worthy progeny. Through foresight and cunning Savitri outwits Yama and saves Satyawan’s life.
In Twilight Savitri transforms into Queenie the priestess of the Jamaican rite, Kumina. Barry Moncrieffe, Artistic Coordinator of National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica and senior lecturer at the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts shared with Thiagarajah the movement vocabulary and significance of Kumina. There are no spectators for this participatory dance that has a prescribed movement vocabulary. A Kumina ceremony includes both song and dance and can be a few hours to a few days. It is performed in an open yard with the movement occurring in a counter-clockwise circle with a pole in the centre. Two drummers and a grater sit by the pole. A Kumina ceremony has a libation of white rum. Kumina can be celebratory or solemn depending on whether the occasion is one of birth, a wedding, or a wake dance if the occasion is death. Queenie is Kumina priestess, prophet and symbolist. Queenie leads Kumina ceremony through movement and song. The ceremony is spiritual and includes sacrifice and ancestral spirit possession. Queenie presides over this ceremony, rallying participant unity, summoning spirits, calming and steering participants individually or as a group through the spirit world to the present.
How much shaping and pushing has the choreographer over a work’s creation, its first steps intimated by ideas shared between contributors and performers. Moncrieffe has trained at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and toured with Anna Sokolow Dance Company and the National Dance Theatre of Jamaica but for Moncrieffe this was a new method for making dance using Jamaican folk dance. Jamaican folk dance is handed over from one person to the next. This exchange of embodied knowledge is a passing of prescribed sensibilities, muscle and blood memories that rarely change in intention and require specific technical skill to enable personalised performance but not much artistic licence. The movement vocabulary is learned from master teacher to acolyte within a cultural setting that enforces the integral elements of its integrity from generation to generation. Working with Thiagarajah on Twilight revealed a new way of understanding dance making and performance. For Moncrieffe, experimentation to manipulate movement and contact improvisation for duet and group work presented an altered manner with which to make dance. In Twilight, movements are recovered from lessons learned from masters steeped in heritages of both Indian and Jamaican peoples. The meaning in movement, accents in feet and hips, spinal flex and twist are all embodied in muscle fibre and become material given from person-to-person. This then is transformed in the effort to forge an altered presentation. Nuances are recalled in the dialogue between directors and directed that encourage improvisations to manipulate what is already known. But the emphasises is on designing a different understanding; taking what is known already to transliterate into fresh approaches and several different synthesises.
Indra Thiagarajah has studied South Asian classical dance style, Bharata Natyam and has toured as a performer since the early 80’s. She has studied at London Narthan Alya, Valuvoor School, and Bhartha Kalanjali School, Madras, short courses at Laban Centre, Koffi Koko, and a Research and Development project with Theatre de Complicite. Thiagarajah reworked existing works for BBC2 and Channel 4 and has been commissioned by Chisenhale Dance Sapce and Wandsworth Arts Festival. Thiagarajah has also received support for her work from London Arts Board, East England Arts, East Midlands Arts and the Arts Council. Bimba Dance Theatre has been touring since 1994. As choreographer, Thiagarajah chooses performers who own their movement and are not afraid to share their individual embodied knowledge with associate dancers and choreographers. Thiagarajah chooses dancers who can work as an ensemble. Working ensemble is an acquired skill demonstrating a dancer can work anonymously in a group where each person is integral to the whole or perform solo. A dancer with this speciality has acquired the requisite skill to develop a character with appropriate technical prowess and deliver meaning and clarity in movement expression whether united with the group or performing separately.
For Twilight Tempest of Love and Death there is an accomplished drummer of African, Caribbean and Latin percussions, Silbert Morris, whose drumming accompanied commissioned music by Christopher Best. Best is a freelance composer and senior lecturer/reader in music composition at Dartington College of Arts in Devon. His commissions include two works for Scottish Dance Theatre, scores for Sarah Whatley and music for the Kaleidoscope Integrated Dance Project. Best met Thiagarajah at the 1996 Choreographer’s-Composer’s Exchange held at the Southbank. Thiagarajah contacted Best in 1999. They worked together for 18 months on the making of Twilight. For Best the challenge was to write music that would be different from the “English” music he was known for without descending into pastiche. Best used non-standard tunings and employed non-Western instruments such as djembe drum, Ghanaian xylophone, Balinese gamelan gongs and eastern European vocals in a manner that enforces the mysticism of Twilight. The sounds are magical and with the live drummer supported the dynamics of Twilight’s dancers. To arrive from initial ideas with Thiagarajah to the composition for Twilight, Best visited rehearsals periodically, brought samples to be tested and then refined, and was also able to include Kumina rhythms in the fabric of his composition. The process to structure the work was a joint effort to have movement and music unit with equal purpose. What is presented is sound enforcing dynamics of the dancers and characterising the landscape in which the dance occurred. The drummer with his djembe took his place downstage left facing the performers and began a quiet and slow rhythm that built in tempo and sound level. With silhouetted figures standing upstage and moving so slow you can hardly tell where the movement begins or ends, Best’s CD begins and the work leads into its particular landscape of mysticism.
The movement of the dancers is synthesised from Kumina indicating Twilight as a work of varying semblance not duplication. The stiff spine with pelvis moving forward and side to side of Kumina were morphed into the slow shapes filtered through red gauze draped over each dancer. In this space Indian rhythms in feet layer Jamaican djembe rhythms, Jamacian movement is fragmented and altered through tempo and dynamic, Indian fingers stretched in one phrase morphe into Kumina Wake dance in another and ebonga moves synthesised into 2 and 3 dimensional plié attitude shapes and barrel jumps reminiscent of spiralled movements of Graham technique. All these ideas are drawn from ensemble members, choreographers, and composer then synthesised to create a work that has its own lexicon of expression. The movement vocabulary is not simply regurgitated movement. The music not prefabricated electronics. The movement is remembered visceral echoes reshaped and coaxed out in an altered form. Myths told, imagery given, ideas shared, manipulated then funnelled out to tell a combination of 2 cultures in an altered fashion. In this process mythology and cultural practice is the starting point for all involved in the creative process. The legends converge causing the transliteration of movement, music and written/oral text. The dance work is a narrative telling with lead protagonists supporting antagonists. Through solos, duets, and trios the ensemble uses the space to establish relationships of a god with spirit walkers, husband and wife, contest and contested. Imagery alludes to the dead walking amongst the living and trickery in verbal text is alluded too by combative like moves. The ensemble consist of 5 dancers with Yama, God of Death played by Alan Miller and Savitri played by Neila Ebanks. During the work a long diagonal of light is travelled with simple linear moves of weight and unwavering focus. This moment performed by Keita-Marie Chamberlain seemed the “and” between two sections but also for me a metaphor for the journey for those involved in the making of Twilight Tempest of Love and Death.
In my minds eye I remember the opening of Twilight. I now know the movement is fragmented Kumina moves slowed down and the dancers are spirit walkers, their portrayal setting the space to contest death and win love. The sounds including the drummer created eeriness, a bit of mystery that invited me into its space. This section intrigued me in several ways and alluded to a deeper meaning. I know now I missed a connection and only learned the implications of this opening through conversations with the makers of this work. Twilight illustrates in the first moment it’s blending of cultural sensibilities. I wonder how many of my associate audience members had the insight to appreciate the twist in this banter of well-chosen moves. Not knowing did not lessen my experience of the work but oh how much more enlightened I feel having discovered these bits of the equation that are the foundation of Twilight Tempest of Love and Death. My new found insight opens a door to multiple understandings and will enrich my future witnessing of works that exemplify the possibilities of transliteration in dance making.
THEA NERISSA BARNES