This February, the Sampled Festival will return to Sadler’s Wells, covering a diverse range of dance styles designed for seasoned dance lovers and newcomers alike. Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company will be bringing their retelling of Marius Petipa’s Bayadère to the stage, a ballet that explores the intersection of Western and Indian culture. We spoke to choreographer and artistic director of the company Shobana Jeyasingh about her own interpretation of this ballet classic, and how we as a society need to recognise that communication through dance is equally as powerful and important as that of music, books and film.
London Calling: Can you tell us a little more about the work your company will perform at Sampled – Bayadère The Ninth Life - and how you examine the West’s fascination with the Orient?
Shobana Jeyasingh: It’s a very famous ballet from the 19th century, unusually for a ballet it’s set in India. The central character is a temple dancer, and there’s a love story where her lover betrays her and marries the princess. It’s a typical ballet story representing a love triangle, but what I was interested in is the portrayal of Indian dance on stage, and the movement language used to show her. I was interested in how that character of the Indian dancer was created, and you know, I hope people don’t still think that India is full of snake charmers, but there’s still that idea of the exotic East in the national psyche. So this was just a way of looking at that.
In my version, the story is told by a young man blogging a ballet he’s just seen. He’s maybe working in a call centre in Bangalore, he sees the ballet La Bayadère and he’s totally mystified by this image of India that he doesn’t understand, and he’s talking to a friend and commenting on the characters.
LC: Evidently you’re really interested in the exchanging of cultures, combining those and establishing cross-cultural connections, why do you think this is?
SJ: Actually, I don’t feel the need to combine anything, life is already pretty combined! It’s more about having your own take, I don’t have to combine cultures thank God because I’m not a politician or social engineer. As a choreographer, I make things that are influenced by my surroundings, things I read, and my friends. We live in a time when things are very changeable, when you walk down a London high street, look at all the different restaurants you see and the culture there. I’m not interested in changing things, I’m just interested in making them more visible.
LC: As a choreographer, what is your opinion on what it takes to be a brilliant dancer – is it more than being physically strong and agile?
SJ: It all depends on what sort of choreography. A brilliant dancer for one choreographer is not a brilliant dancer for another, it takes different skills. A choreographer might want grace, or skills, whilst another will be looking for imagination or drama. Dance is used in such a large variety of ways so it’s hard to define what makes a good dancer.
LC: Your work proves that dance can be one of the best forms of communicating stories and important issues – do you think it is important to express how dance can be a powerful form of education?
SJ: I think that’s the ideal, that’s the reason learning and participation is an important part of any company. You have a responsibility to a society that is funding you to give back. It’s sad that words have always been the primary way that people access art, because in Britain there is such a huge tradition of literature and theatre, so it dominates. But dance has the same abilities, except it’s not as portable and accessible; you can’t cook your dinner whilst watching some dance! But generally the kinesthetic literacy for dance is very low because people don’t learn it when they’re young. With dance, it really is a desert, dance education stops at the age of six. But everyone has a body, and seeing other bodies move, it’s not that difficult or strange.
Shobana Jeyasingh Dance will be performing an extract reimagining Petipa’s exotic ballet ‘La Bayadere’ to create a new vision that interweaves fiction with history and belongs to both India and Europe; as part of Sadler’s Wells’ Sampled on 3 & 4 February 2017 and also at The Lowry on 24 & 25 February. The company will tour Material Men Redux across the UK in Spring 2017. Sampled tickets are £15 for seated and £8 for standing. Find out more here.