SHOBANA JEYASINGH DANCE at the Everyman Cheltenham

Landscape-sb2014-600x350I often feel that dance is a more complete form of theatre than dialogue based drama. I think if one listed all the things that make up “good theatre” then dance, for me at any rate, contemporary dance, would tick more boxes. And, again in my experience, it is much less likely to disappoint. Although one sees a number of duff plays, the standard of dance, again modern dance in particular, – and here I am including music, lighting, design etc. – is invariably very high. There is a feeling of perfectionism and dedication one rarely feels in conventional, text based theatre.

There are several small(ish) independent dance companies around, all of which are excellent and all of which oblige me to sit agog, amazed at the wonder of it all for the first twenty minutes of the performance. That rarely happens with a play. The Shobana Jeyasingh Dance company had that effect last night.

I must confess, to my shame, to not having heard of the company before this visit was scheduled. Established in 1988 by Ms Jeyasingh, it is based in London but works around the world. Although I don’t think the company could be described as Asian/Indian or having any other essentially ethnic basis, the influences are clearly there. Ms Jeyasingh was born in India but has roots in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. These influences were particularly evident in the company’s current signature piece, Material Men, which formed the main part of their programme last night.

Taking as its starting point the mass transportation of cheap (essentially slave) labour from the Indian sub-continent in the years following the abolition of slavery, the piece deals with identity, integration and attempts/desires to retain a community’s culture.

Two men slowly enter behind a row of slim pillars like the bars of a cage, perhaps the outline of a fence. They are bound together by the long silken lengths of a sari, initially inexorably linked to one another. The sari slowly unwinds and eventually the men are separated and struggle to go their own way. One clings to the traditional Indian dance, the other has all the breakdance moves – two styles difficult to reconcile. Powerful stuff, beautifully danced by Shailesh Bahoran and Sooraj Subramaniam to original music by Elena Kats-Chernin, played live on stage by the excellent Smith Quartet.

The evening was completed by an ensemble piece, Strange Blooms, involving eight dancers, all dressed identically and, seemingly, not caring much about gender – lots of men paired with men and girls with girls. Inspired by the cellular life of plants and divided into short segments it was performed to a dramatic, exciting and loud score by Gabriel Prokofiev. Also outstanding was the beautiful lighting by Guy Hoare and the spectacular projection of giant organic, geometric shapes on the back cloth designed by Jan Urbanowski. The aggressive percussive soundtrack of the first few minutes gently softened as the piece went on, bringing in more conventional sounds of harpsichord and strings.

Both pieces were immaculately and imaginatively choreographed by Shobana Jeyasingh and the whole presentation was faultless. The evening was a jaw-dropping delight. I loved every minute and really look forward to seeing the company again.   ★★★★★   Michael Hasted   23/09/15