Interview: Shobana Jeyasingh - celebrating with flowers

Tuesday 26 November 2013 by Carmel Smith

Shobana Jeyasingh's 'Strange Blooms' Photo: Chris Nash

Next week choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh presents the world premiere of Strange Blooms – a Southbank Centre commission marking 25 years of creating intelligent, enquiring new dance in which her classical training in the dance form of Bharatha Natyam has been combined with very contemporary interests in digital media, site specific work and collaboration – often with high profile composers and musicians. On Strange Blooms she works with composer Gabriel Prokofiev…..

How did the theme of your new work Strange Blooms come to you?
I had been wanting to create a dance work about plants for a long time. Meeting James Lovelock, the scientist, and hearing him talk about the importance of plants for human existence was an inspiration.

How has the collaboration with composer Gabriel Prokofiev worked?
Gabriel has been a generous and stimulating collaborator and I have really enjoyed working with him. His score for Strange Blooms is wonderful.
We met quite a few times in his studio to talk about the ideas behind the dance work and he produced many sketches for me to listen to. He also visited the dance studio on many occasions to see how the music and the movement were “talking“ to each other. He has a great sensitivity for dance which went into his score for Strange Blooms.

What is it about his work which made you want to work with him?
I remember reading an article about him and listening to his work for turntable and orchestra in 2011. For Strange Blooms I was looking for someone to remix a piece of Baroque music in a bold inventive way and he seemed the ideal person.

Have you have developed the work with input from your individual dancers?
Since I work with tasks in the studio all my works involve the creative input of the dancers [Avatâra Ayuso, Richard Causer, Sunbee Han, Noora Kela, Teerachai Thobumrung, Leeyuan Tu, Simone Muller-Lotz and Ruth Voon]. in the movement generation stage. For composition and direction one needs to be outside looking in.

As per my previous works I have collaborated with various artists (in addition to the dancers). As well as Gabriel Prokofiev – Guy Hoare on lighting and Jan Urbanowski for animation. I have probably had to do more research for Strange Blooms than some other works.

Part of your 25th anniversary programme includes your Empowering Women, Inspiring Girls project with Mulberry School for Girls. Tell us about Mulberry Blooms
The students observed rehearsals, discussed these with me, took part in workshops, and were given tools and background information on Strange Blooms.
Mulberry Blooms gave the students an insight into what a professional artist does and the tools and opportunity to create their own projects, and make creative decisions.

The apparent lack of female choreographers has been a much debated issue lately. You’ve run your own company very successfully for 25 years. What advice would you give to young women at the start of their careers as dance artists now?
I am not sure whether there is any “advice” as such since situations are always in flux. What worked for me might not always work for others. There are many days when I question just how conventionally successful I have been! However, a curiosity for dance making and an interest in the times I live in has been my main motivation. How this is affected by gender I don’t know! Women certainly have to be tougher and more dogged. We also have our own unique measure of success probably.

Were you aware of having to ‘break through’ as a young woman? And why do you think it is still such an issue now?
What I had to break through (and still do) was cultural over-definition. My ethnicity as a choreographer still attracts more comment than my craftsmanship as a dance maker! This battle was so tough that any gender battles went unnoticed. However it is a sad fact that in a sector where there are so many female dancers, female choreographers are under-represented. In the same way that though women do most of the cooking in this country the celebrity chefs tend to be mostly male. Perhaps the construct of “professionalism” needs to be reimagined and remade to include the unique place and role that women have in society.

The programme also includes Configurations – one of your first works from 1988, a collaboration with composer Michael Nyman. How does it feel to present it again – does it feel like a distant, early work – or does it still have currency for you?
Configurations feels neither distant nor near to Strange Blooms – just different. It is a work made for virtuoso Bharatha Natyam dancers which I worked on again about three years ago. It has been a constantly evolving piece. It made me realise that some of my choreographic obsessions are still alive and kicking!

What excites you about it?
It is always wonderful to see a classical technique such as Bharatha Natyam performed with all its bravura and by a cast of superb technicians. That is one of the wonders of any classical dance discipline and I feel very grateful that my initial education in dance was in this humbling technique from Tamil Nadu in South India where my family come from.

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance 25th Anniversary
Tue 3 & Wed 4 December, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

Photos: Chris Nash

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