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Stage for hidden dancers

St George and the dancer


In the cool, dark interiors of St George's Church in Venice, you suddenly spot the dancers. They surge across in waves, almost as though in a balletic hurdle race, now crouching, now effortlessly leaping over the wooden pews - a scene of choreographed athleticism mixed with immense grace. Occasionally they rest their faces against the brown wood, in repose. You only see them waist up, and they stick to this small 'stage', never stepping into the aisle as the audience watches them from the altar.

The London-based dancer and choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh's latest production TooMortal is stunning not just because it picks a strange stage but because it is startlingly beautiful. "I saw the pews like a wooden sea with waves with human beings caught in them, " says the 55-yearold dancer. "The aisle that separates the pews has traditionally been a path where a person starts his or her life's journey - first as an infant at the baptismal font, then to get married at the altar, and finally at death. Places of worship always act as reminders of our mortality. They are monuments to the infinite where our finite nature is constantly underlined. "

In Shobana Jeyasingh's beautiful new piece TooMortal, church pews act as the stage for a sea of crouching, hidden dancers. It is not that dance performances have never been located in places of worship. Indian classical dances like vilasini natyam and early forms of Odissi and Bharatanatyam have strong ties with temples rituals. These dances were performed in the temple complex either as an offering to the deity or as entertainment for those who come to watch the dance festival. And Jeyasingh, after all, was trained in Bharatanatyam.

TooMortal, however, she says, is special because it is contemporary and picks a special venue. "It is a specific dance work made to be performed on the pews, " she says. "It is also a contemporary dance work and not a classical one. "
In Europe, the church is a place of silence and contemplation, not quite the hub of social or cultural life that the temple is in India. Why did Jeyasingh choose a church to stage her dance? "I see all places of worship as full of the hopes and desires of people, " she says. "I also feel that historic buildings have the imprint of the many thousands of people who have come in and out of them over hundreds of years. I see activity rather than stillness. " The dancer, who belongs to an Indian Christian family from Chennai, migrated to London in the '80s. She has often talked about how struck she was by how differently the West and East viewed devotion.

TooMortal has been performed in three churches so far - St George's Anglican Church in Venice where it debuted, and St Mary's Old Church and St Pancras Church in London. The next performance will be at St Swithun's Church in Worcester (July 19-21 ), and the last, in Stockholm at St Jacob's Kyrka (September 12-13 ). While the choreography does not vary between churches, it does respond to physical changes such as the width and height of the pews.

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance (SJD) is a contemporary dance company about 25 years old. Jeyasingh's early and basic training was with Nandini Ramani, a student of the legendary Balasaraswathi. Even in her recent and contemporary compositions like Classic Cut, Bruise Blood (on the Harlem riots) and Faultline (on the position of the Asian Muslim in a post-7 /7 UK), strong streaks of Bharatanatyam are evident in the liberal use of mudras (hand gestures), adavus (footwork) and geometric concepts. "Yes, my first and only training is in Bharatanatyam, " agrees Jeyasingh. "I am not a professional dancer any more. My choreography owes much to my love of Bharatanatyam although it may not be apparent on the surface of my dance work. "
Jeyasingh says she tries as much as possible to stay in touch with the many changes the style is undergoing in India. Some of her own dancers are now independent performers. "The recalibrations of the classical as well as the new narratives of the contemporary are both riveting, " she says.

But the Bharatanatyam of Jeyasingh's choreographies is devoid of its facial drama, its mythological and religious context as well as its straight story-telling. In that, it is closer to ballet and abstract modern American and British dance. Janet O'Shea, a dancer-scholar who has written an insightful essay on the uniqueness of Jeyasingh's dance in the Western cultural milieu, says she defies barriers and cultural slots like 'Eastern' and 'Western'. Jeyasingh, says O'Shea, "encourages viewers to question their characterization of 'Indian culture' as incapable of experimentation, renewal, or change".

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