Review: Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company - Classic Cut

Performance: 13 - 17 March 2012
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Friday 16 March 2012

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company 'Dev Kahan Hai?/Where is Dev?' Photo: Chris Nash

It’s hard to believe that pioneering contemporary South Asian choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh and her company have been pounding stages worldwide for almost 25 years, but that’s exactly what the semi-retrospective programme Classic Cut celebrates. The first in a three-year series of Silver anniversary revels, this double bill revisits acclaimed early work Configurations and offers a brand-new piece, Dev Kaham hai? (Where is Dev?). The whole is a timely reminder of the qualities that have kept Jeyasingh at the top of her game for a quarter of a century.

I say “semi-retrospective” because the Classic Cut version of Configurations is not a fossilised piece of repertory but presented here in a reworked version, created on a quartet of two male and two female bharata natyam dancers. Those who have seen the work in earlier incarnations will recognise its thrilling pace and rhythmic intensity; dancers beat out Michael Nyman’s urgent syncopations on the floor with unerring feet, ornamented with the gorgeous hand gestures of Jeyasingh’s native form.

The piece moves along at such a lick we can only marvel at the both the stamina of the performers and the detail of the choreography; dancers form and reform into groups and subgroups with mathematical precision, unrelenting jatis hammering the stage. There’s a great deal of cleverness to this early work, but it’s a physical cleverness, a feast for the eyes that can also be appreciated on a very visceral level. Nyman’s score – specially commissioned for the original Configurations – sounds as fresh as the day it was written, and is brilliantly performed live by The Smith Quartet.

Companion piece Dev Kaham hai? (Where is Dev?) is an altogether more cerebral affair. Opening with a series of projected film images of eyes scrolling across a screen to Niraj Chag’s neo-Bollywood score, the piece takes a heavily remixed look at the portrayal of longing and desire in both classical Indian dance and cinematic representations of love. A section of traditional bharata natyam repertory – in which the dancers are seen getting ready to meet an approaching lover – is put through the blender and emerges chopped-up, reordered and spliced with chunks of contemporary contact work.

New dancer Sri Thina Subramaniam, dressed in white with a traditional headdress and temple jewellery, embodies the most traditional representation of the separated lover – her expressive abhinaya are beautiful as she listens for approaching steps and mimes adorning herself with bangles and earrings. Other members of the cast arrive on stage dressed in black costumes and hipster shades, a more obviously modern and film-inspired incarnation of the lover’s persona. Moments of mirror-gazing and bangle-wearing crop up again and again, interspersed with choppy leaps and sometimes adversarial doublework. In one sequence, Subramaniam appears to be piled with invisible jewellery placed on her by the other dancers; another finds the six restlessly partner-swapping in an elusive search for a match.

The work doesn’t lean too heavily on its playful title – Dev is a common Indian name (as of the famous film actor Dev Anand) and also a word for deity; this potential second meaning fits the much-used classical dance convention of a yearning female waiting for the return of Lord Krishna also seen in the early Indian cinematic representations of love and desire which Jeyasingh’s new work explores. A looped female voice in Chag’s electronic soundtrack repeatedly poses the title question, literally asking where Dev is but hinting at waiting for God. Perhaps it suggests something about modern love and devotion that neither god nor Dev ever arrives.

By turns thought-provoking and visually exhilarating, this programme showcases Jeyasingh’s evolution as a choreographer – from rigorous bharata natyam patterns to clever high-concept contemporary work that draws on those traditions but is far from restricted by them. The company’s trademark pure lines and dazzling rhythms remain, but there’s curiosity and intellectual depth here too.

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company perform at the Linbury Studio Theatre 13-17 March 2012
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