'The human body is very ephemeral, prone to damage'
I'm a choreographer with my own dance company of 25
years. We dance anywhere we're asked. We're at the South
Bank a lot, and the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre, and, of
course, we go on tour.
I am making a dancework for churches called
TooMortal, which is to be danced on the pews by
female dancers. We are rehearsing this at St Mary's Old Church,
Stoke Newington, one of the oldest Elizabethan churches in London.
We're touring to St Pancras Parish Church, St George's in Venice,
St Swithun's, Worcester, and churches in Sweden and Belgrade.
I trained in India, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka in
the classical Indian style, but I don't really choreograph in that
style. I suppose you could call what I do loosely "contemporary". I
used to dance, but when I started to design dances, I needed to
stop in order to see it from the outside.
Classical dance is complicated - very
technique-based, and there's an element of virtuosity: you have to
train very hard to do something not normally done by the body. In
contemporary dance, there's less of a tradition of virtuosity for
its own sake. It was a revolt against classical dance, as it was
felt too artificial. It's just as virtuosic - you still need
incredible dance skills - but not to do 32 spins without stopping;
not showing off for the sake of it. It's a different impetus for
I was asked some years ago to do something very small to
launch a fund-raising appeal for St Mary's. I found the
pews the most interesting feature to use in a dance work. They were
box pews with quite high sides, and this gave me possibilities to
place the body at various levels, to see it from unusual
perspectives, and to erase it quickly by just dropping the dancers
down. The transience of the body heightened by the resonance of the
church was the starting point for TooMortal.
I've only chosen churches that have pews in
them. St Pancras also has box pews. St Swithun's has
high-sided pews, and St George's in Venice are raising their pews
for us. I've been reading so much about pews on the internet - I
hadn't appreciated how they had completely changed how people
interacted with the liturgy.
TooMortal is a reflection on
our vulnerability and our resilience. It's a little poem
about our own mortality. Not a pessimistic view - but with dance
you never know what's finally going to come out. It's an essay on
bodies in this very man-made structure - the building - using six
women dancers. The human body is very ephemeral, prone to damage
and all kinds of things, so there's an interaction between human
body and permanent building.
It's not feminist in a dogmatic way, but
women's bodies are different - different shapes, different
histories - and pews are very regular and angular. In a very
fundamental way, I'm just complementing that with something
I haven't made a plan to work in a church
again. We have another production we're touring in the
autumn, but TooMortal - I'm hoping it will have a long
life and we can keep touring it.
Performances are free. In a church they have to
be, don't they? Churches have a resonance for everyone, whether
they're Christian or not. It runs for 20 minutes, four times a
The music is a remix of James MacMillan. He's a
Roman Catholic, and he wrote this piece of very beautiful music
called Tenebrae Responsories. I've had it remixed by a
soundscape artist with his very kind permission; so you hear it in
a more distant way - not Christian music, but you're aware that
it's with a choir. It's church-like music without it being church
music. Just as this is not presented as liturgical dancing - it's a
dance work in a church. There's a difference.
I belong to the Church of South India. People
often don't realise we have this very old tradition of Christianity
where I was born: there is St Thomas's Mount where, by tradition,
he is buried. In Britain, I go to an Anglican service.
Liturgy also has to have a very particular kind of
choreography, especially in high churches. It's very
physical: prostrating, bowing, turning, and this is something
im-portant to me - as important as the verbal.
I don't really know much about liturgical
dancing - I think I saw something on YouTube once. I don't
know who choreographs it. It's not what I'm making, I can tell you
that. Folk dance, when people participate is one thing: that's got
an incredible power. And then there are beautiful pieces of work
with craftsmanship, and they are works of art. Something in the
middle doesn't work. Nothing excuses bad design.
Dance, like poetry, can create allusive, non-linear,
and layered meaning, which is what I find fascinating. On
the other hand, because the body also has its more everyday
communicative rules (like a nod of the head means yes) audiences
sometimes find it difficult to navigate themselves through
designed bodily movement. The body also has to fight against the
prejudice of a culture which, on the whole, favours the verbal arts
as a vehicle for art-making.
Historic churches, like all historic buildings, have an
aura about them, which can stop you in your tracks and
make you reassess yourself. However, it is the interconnectedness
of people and their response to what is outside the church that
Most of my family live in India - my mother
lives in Bangalore. But it's a typical Indian family, with
relatives everywhere: Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia. I go every year.
I don't miss it - I don't feel far away. When I'm there I miss
England, and vice versa.
My childhood ambition was to be a writer; so I
have failed 100 per cent.
It seems that one recognises big choices only in
retrospect. Then one realises that they have been the
cumulative effect of many small ones. My regrets are too numerous
I guess it would be nice if I got a favourable review
from my son.
The dancer Kamala Laxman, whose photograph I saw when I
was about seven or eight years old, was my greatest
inspiration. She's a famous Indian classical dancer, also
a film star: everyone knows her in South India. I saw her dance for
the first time when she was 60. I was so intrigued and charmed by
her photograph that I wanted to learn to be like her.
Artefact by William Forsyth is a favourite dance work.
I would have liked to have listened to a sermon by
Donne. I've always liked his poetry and, recently, my son
had to read lots of Donne for his GCSE English. What a complicated
man he was! "Ravish me!" I just found his zest for his spiritual
journey quite remark- able.
Pompeii is a place that I shall never forget.
You can see how people lived 2000 years ago in such an immediate
way: the charred bread, the wine, the jars they made. It really
brought home to me how close we are, the human family.
My favourite Bible passage has to be the opening chapter
of St John's Gospel. As for my least favourite, at my
boarding school where we listened to daily readings I used to find
the list of "so and so begat so and so" a bit of a challenge.
I love the sound of birdsong in a garden.
I get angry with the slowness of my ageing
computer. I'm happiest first thing in the morning, when
the whole day with its many possibilities is in front of me.
If I were locked in a church, John Donne who would keep
me inspired with his sermons, and perhaps write a witty
poem or two to pass the time. Or I'd choose the present Archbishop
of Canterbury. It's sad he's resigning.
Shobana Jeyasingh was talking to Terence Handley
For performance times and reservations: www.shobanajeyasingh.co.uk/TooMortal