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“As a young dancer who is still trying to find my own movement language, the workshop was something that I will take with me for a long long time. More than just the technique or the dance material, were the different ways of initiating movement that was interesting.”

Sowmya Jaganmurthy  Dancer, Bangalore
mystery of abstraction
lingering in the past
“The East is often placed over there, far away, lingering in the past. Shobana’s work instead sets India into the presents and launches it into the future.”

Veena Basavarajaiah  Dancer/choreographer, Bangalore
structure and speed
“Performing in India, especially in Bangalore, has been an amazing experience both on a professional and personal level. I started dancing many years ago in Bangalore, without ever imagining that I would become a professional dancer. Going back home with the Company and having the chance to perform in front of my family and close friends for the first time was a great achievement for me.

Contemporary dance has changed a lot in India since I started. Dancers and teachers are willing to experiment, they are more open to change and you can feel that now they look at contemporary dance in Europe with interest. They are more willing to detach from their classical background. I think that the mentality has changed quite a lot, it's wider, less judgemental.

In all the cities where we performed in India I heard only positive comments. People were inspired and they commented that the quality of the work was very high, even more than what expected. They were kind of surprised in a positive way; they liked the structure and speed of the pieces and they felt good in recognising elements of Bharata Natyam in the movements.

Having a strong Bharatanatyam influence our work is Indian but the subjects and the collaboration with the dancers and musicians, the technical design etc makes it very different. It is a hybrid work, more than being specific to Indian or European.”

Devaraj Thimmiah  Dancer, Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company
maybe because
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the view from the wings
The warmth and professionalism of our Bangalore sponsors is evident from the moment I arrived at 4 am at the airport to a call from their co coordinator wishing the company a warm welcome to the city. Later TVS Motors organise a press conference. I notice that the logo for their company is a horse in mid leap providing a neat convergence of our mutual ideals of power, speed and agility.

A surprising question that has cropped up in the numerous press interviews is, “what is the relevance of your company to India?” I seem to be back in the coals to Newcastle territory. I am being asked to justify my presence but the most obvious reason for us being here (dance) is hard to explain. If Shakespeare or Pizza can interest urban Indians why should I, whose mother still lives in Bangalore, have to justify my relevance, I wonder.

The label NRI (“non resident Indian” coined mostly for the historically recent emigration to the USA of the professional classes) has become a tribal marker and seems to provoke certain stock responses. My path out of India was far more eccentric and I find my self twitching uncomfortably when handed this particular straitjacket.

Moreover, there is confusion about exactly what I represent. The journalist probably thinks that I have come to represent Indian dance rather than dance by an Indian. Anyway, I point out city dwelling, fear of terrorism (we are all searched on every entry in to our hotel) as two possible things we may share in common quite apart from a shared history. I hope that the journalist, a young lady with enviable amounts of street cred will see the performance and evaluate our relevance herself.

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  The audience for our performance is diverse and it is great to see some of my ex dancers and their families there. I first went to audition in Bangalore in the early nineties. Many of the dancers whom we recruited, and their families, had little idea what they were signing up to but came nevertheless in an amazing act of trust and curiosity.

Our workshop next day is organised by Mayuri Upadhya of Nritarutya (who attended our dancer development course in the late nineties). Here differences in nationality are erased as all the dancers, both from my company and the ones from Bangalore, take part in a choreographic process workshop based on Bruise Blood. We could easily be in a studio in North London. Even the rain outside adds to the sense of familiarity.

I have been to the Chowdiah Hall on numerous occasions to see various dance performances over the years and it seems strange now to be rehearsing in it and taking ownership of its stage and dressing rooms as a visiting artist. A group of waiters from the venue stand and watch our rehearsals. I watch them equally intently. They are our first Indian audience and the chemistry seems to be working. They are totally engaged. One of them comes over to ask me what kind of dance they are seeing. I have to invent a category off the top of my head. “It is contemporary” I offer “and Indian” because I notice his recognition, however partial. It seems a rather lightweight riposte to the gravity of his curiosity.

Later, on checking our Bangalore reviews I am happy to notice that the journalist who asked the question about relevance seemed to have enjoyed the experience too.

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  Mutant mudras  
  JyotiThe rain was relentless on this Sunday morning in early November. Small rivers tinged by the colour of Bangalore's red clay flowed down the sides of the road, and the rain filled the air with the smell of earth and trees. Yet, the weather did not discourage dancers of contemporary, classical, and martial training to travel to RT Nagar, a suburb in the northern reaches of Bangalore, India's IT Capital and capital of Indian contemporary dance. Held in a compact top floor studio at the Bangalore School of Music and organised by Nritya Utya, a local contemporary dance company, the workshop attracted mostly professional artists. 20 dancers from in and around Bangalore, 8 dancers from Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, 2 company producers, a few local administrators, and the artistic director, Shobana Jeyasingh, filled the space to its capacity.

Brimming with anticipation to work with the inimitable choreographer and her virtuosic group of dancers, the dancers stretched and prepared for what they expected to be a demanding workshop. Some of those in attendance, including Veena Basavarajaiah and Chitra Srishailan, were former members of the company; others had worked with Shobana in the UK and Canada during Sampad's Dance Intense. Most participants had followed the company for years, and some hoped to make a strong enough impression to attract an apprenticeship in London or collaborate with the company on future dance projects in India.

The workshop began with a warm-up led by SJDC company dancer, Jose Agudo. Through his loose, unfettered trots and jumps that used the body entirely, Jose encouraged the dancers to unfurl and release themselves from any tightness or attachment to a particular way of moving. This warm-up enabled the dancers to explore weight, rhythm, breath, and range of motion and prepared them for learning repertoire that drew from a number of influences as exemplified by Shobana's trademark hybrid style.

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Following the warm-up, the participants learned a section from the end of Bruise Blood, a duet performed by Devaraj Thimmaiah and Ruth Voon on the tour.

The intensity, quickness, friction and variety of this segment challenged many of the dancers in ways they had not been challenged before. One of the participants, a slight and graceful woman named Hema, who has training in kalarippayattu, contemporary and bharata natyam, explained she wanted to repeat the movement again and again to re-experience how it drew on the many movement languages that lived in her body.

Hema is one example of a burgeoning group of dancers in Bangalore who are experimenting across styles as a form of cultural practice. As Malini Ranganathan and Monique Loquet explain in their work on the relationship between interdisciplinarity and globalisation, "the broad diffusion of cultural practices in a global environment necessitates reflection on what constitutes specialisation in a discipline, as well as on the contents and former teaching methods for a discipline such as kathak," or kalarripayattu, ballet, or bharata natyam, for that matter. Many of the participants in the Bangalore workshop (as well as in the Delhi workshop that took place at the IGNITE! festival a few days later), were experts in their own dance field(s) of bharata natyam, kuchipudi, kathak and odissi, India's main "classical" dance styles. Adapting their bodies to SJDC choreography, and, in turn, challenging their own pedagogical comforts, enabled a kinaesthetic awareness that shed light on the structuring of their bodily grammar and codes of movement.

In classical dance training, there has traditionally been little attention placed on learning choreographic methods in the classroom. Once

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  dancers have reached a level of expertise and fluency with the lexicon, they subsequently tend to work with percussionists, composers and nattuvanars (the conductors of bharata natyam and kuchipudi performances) to design movement. Before attaining a level of mastery to choreograph an evening of traditional repertoire, dance students tend to accept their guru's transmission of choreography, adding their own individuality through facial expression and subtle postural adjustments with their guru's approval.

In the SJDC workshops in Bangalore and in Delhi, the absence of a guru-disciple dynamic placed the onus of choreography on the dancers. As Shobana mentions in one of our conversations on this site, without the "comfort" of a hierarchical (guru-disciple) structure, the dancer and choreographer face a more level playing field where together they face "the unknown of a pristine, new story."

This unknown territory is the dynamic that Shobana charted in each of the workshops. During the third section of the workshop in both Delhi and in Bangalore, the participants responded to a choreographic task using words from Steve Reich's 1966 composition, Come Out, the guiding score and choreographic thematic for Bruise Blood. The words Shobana chose were "Bruise Blood," "show" and "come out." After dividing them into groups of four, Shobana asked them to explore the intentionality of "I had to," as a "guide to the dynamic" of expressing certain words and phrases that included "aggressive, emphatic, against, imperative, aiming at target, rebound, determined, inner conviction, as if their life depended on it." Shobana applied further limits to the choreographic tasks, asking the dancers to "show" the knee, upper back, bum, or wrist. In other words, she wanted the dancers to lead, punctuate or navigate with areas of the body often downplayed in dance.

Shobana held a detailed discussion with the dancers in both cities, asking them to investigate the stimuli of "Bruise Blood," "show" and "come out." In Bangalore, other words such as "vulnerability" emerged in response to the word "bruise." One particular group with a great deal of training in BN was guided by Shobana to demonstrate vulnerability in ways that were not so literal or pantomimed. This led to a provocative illustration that deconstructed the technique through wilted mudras, or hand gestures, and broken araimandis, a position similar to a plié, with bent knees and legs rotated at the hip, but differentiated by the use of weight.

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Discursively, what was striking about the workshops in Bangalore and Delhi was the absence of any reference to Indian-ness, identity, or authenticity that seemed to accompany audiences' experiences of Bruise Blood and Faultline across India. If at all present, Indian-ness seemed to be only one of many subjectivities that these cosmopolitan dancers embodied. Shobana asked movement-based questions influenced by her own engagement with cities, spaces replete with exigencies where one must be "emphatic," "determined," and in possession of an "inner conviction" to survive, and certainly to produce art. Though this urbanism was not always clear in the gesture of a broken mudra or in a participant's furious motion led by a knee or wrist, the cosmopolitanism they conveyed in the workshop exercised a urbanism illustrated by their locations of multiple and simultaneous subject positions derived across India and imbued by the collision of competing classical, modern and martial value systems. In Shobana’s workshops, the in-between margins and excesses of these systems are the spaces the choreographer encouraged the dancers to investigate. In doing so, the dancers encountered tools to potentially navigate the future of contemporary dance in India, drawing on the rich civilization of movement styles, and the modernity, paradox and globalism of its ancient cities.

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