Shobana Jeyasingh presents an evening of detailed precision in two highly unique works spanning a career of over 25 years. This double bill in Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall pairs a revival of Jeyasingh's most prominent early work, Configurations, with the world première of her latest work, Strange Blooms. Although they differ vastly in aesthetics and movement style, both works demonstrate the meticulous detail and structural complexity of Jeyasingh's work. The two commissioned scores lend extremely well to the choreography: music and movement are partnered very closely in these works.
Jeyasingh's 1988 piece Configurations is complex and fast-moving, yet there is a distinct clarity within every moment of the piece. Punctuated by the unmistakable sound of bare feet slapping against the floor, Configurations is a piece for four Bharata Natyam dancers. This is a style of Indian dance that requires immense discipline and in which technique and focus are very clearly major elements. The four dancers – three male (Mohd Yunus Ismail, Mohammad Khairi Mokhtar and Sooraj Subramaniam) and one female (Rathimalar Govindarajoo) – perform with vivid character. They wind around one another, in and out of complex and continually morphing formations. Their powerful arms are incredibly expressive as they extend out on either side, nimble hands forming shapes and gestures. Energy flows visibly through every moment of the piece; an intense, unrelenting rhythm pulses through each of the dancers.
A moment of near-stillness provides a vivid instant of suspension before the whirlwind continues: one dancer stands downstage centre, his back to the audience and unmoving, and another dancer faces us with his long arms outstretched, barely moving. There comes a beautiful moment between two dancers – Govindarajoo backing away from an advancing partner – in which each step is tentative, as if unplanned despite its perfect synchronisation with the rhythm of the score. The freshness and vivacity that the dancers bring to their performance makes this piece addictively watchable.
The intricate rhythms of the choreography are neither dictated by nor followed by the score. The dancers fully embody every different changing rhythm within Michael Nyman's music. Jeyasingh provided Nyman with a detailed, extensive score in six sections, each in a different time signature, from which both artists created their work. The result is a unique and perfect match between music and movement, made significantly more impressive when considering this piece was first performed 25 years ago. The percussive drums of Bhatara Natyam are replaced here by the four string players of the Benyounes Quartet, who share a rhythmic timeline with the dancers.
There is an element of game-playing in Configurations. Each of the dancers make eye-contact with the audience, creating a striking challenge as they look up and out. At some moments, the dancers seem desperate or frantic, and at others their energy seems bright and fun. There is a sharp burst of hard rhythm and speed from the four tight-knit dancers as a blackout comes down like a curtain.
The engaging complexity of Configurationsis a hard act to follow, even 25 years on, butStrange Bloomsportrays Jeyasingh's distinct style in a truly unique piece of choreography. The piece opens with eight dancers clustered together, writhing, curling and unfurling repetitively. They move out and away from a central point, as if following instinct: they are a hive of activity, dispersing swiftly yet in no hurry. Strange Blooms, as the title suggests, is based upon botanical observations. Not, though, of how plants look, but of how they move: the curling of sunflower saplings and of tendrils searching for support; the algorithms of computer-assisted botanic study; the instabilities plants create in order to move; and their hybridity.
Dancers move together in small groups, their movements never rushed as they lift, fall, and convulse. There is a constant compulsion to continue: no movement ever takes a dancer to a final destination, no sequence is ever complete. The dancers do not concern themselves with striking poses, but instead they perform off-kilter movement with focus and stoicism. Many movements have elements of struggle – one dancer moves in a particular direction and is pulled back, prevented, restricted by another, so must find an alternative route – yet there is a calm determination to the performances. The speed of the piece is astounding – there is no gentleness in Jeyasingh's representation of nature; it's almost like watching time lapse footage. Jeyasingh stated in the post-show discussion that, "in their own time zone, plants are actually quite frenetic."
There are four clear sections of the piece – curling, algorithms, instability and hybridity – which are highlighted by changes in Guy Hoare's lighting. The second part opens with the eight dancers silhouetted against a bright, electric-blue background, while the fourth tinges the dancers' skin an eerie green as they seethe together across the stage.
Jeyasingh's double bill at Southbank Centre is a vivid portrayal of her unique career in choreography. Although vastly different, the works complement each other, highlighting Jeyasingh's immense skill in producing detailed, complex and rhythmic works. Jeyasingh's work is extremely memorable, enchanting and watchable: don't pass up any opportunity to see these pieces.