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Interview: Shobana Jeyasingh, choreographer

29 June 2012

Shobana Jeyasingh, choreographer

'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 art-making.

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 different.

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 day.

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 finally matters.

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 to mention.

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 MacMath.

For per­formance times and reserva­tions: www.shobanajeyasingh.co.uk/TooMortal


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