Material Men/Strange Blooms

Shobana Jeyasingh
Shobana Jeyasingh Dance
Queen Elizabeth Hall

Shobana Jeyasingh's 'Material Men' with dancers Sooraj Subramaniam and Shailesh Bahoran Credit: Chris Nash
Shobana Jeyasingh Dance 'Strange Blooms' Credit: Chris Nash

Sooraj Subramaniam and Shailesh Bahoran are two distinctly different dancers; Subramaniam trained in classical South Asian dance, Bahoran in hip-hop. Yet both men share an inherited history of mass migration, a journey that stretches from colonial India to present day Europe.

In Shobana Jeyasingh’s latest work, Material Men, this history becomes the spark for a tender exploration of past, shared landscapes and the unique pathways of our lives.

Confined by a single sari, the two men struggle, the fabric both a restriction and plaything for their movement. It creates a connection between them, a need to work together, but the beauty of Material Men is that the individuality of each dancer is left untouched.

The passion, energy and physical strength of Bahron’s hip hop style is placed in stark contrast to Subramaniam’s calm, contained performance of the precise and detailed movements of classical South Asian dance. The accompanying music, performed on-stage by The Smith Quartet, echoes this disparity, at times a lively driving force, at others a mellow background to the movement.

Subramaniam and Bahoran often dance separately, each clearly a master at his own style, but the moments they move together are the most striking. In one instance, they simultaneously perform their own variations on a phrase and it is like hearing a single sentence spoken with entirely different intentions.

They may share a space and dance with each other but each keeps his identity, both as a dancer and as a person. Jeyasingh has struck a delicate balance in the way she has drawn these dancers together. Only at the end do they finally move as one and it is here the piece melts, a shared history seeping through despite the individual paths these two men have taken.

Material Men was accompanied by Jeyasingh’s acclaimed Strange Blooms (2013), a piece based on the cellular life of plants. The accompanying projections, moving images evocative of cellular growth with subheadings like ‘sunflower saplings’ and ‘branching’, give the work the feel of a living lecture.

A burst of frantic movement and a noise like earth uprooting opens the piece with an image reminiscent of these growing saplings. From here it becomes more precise, the dancers moving through angular shapes with a sharpness which perfectly suits the scientific edge to this piece.

The way each movement is set in exact time to the music, a classical but energetic score by Gabriel Prokofiev, is quite incredible. Sometimes the dancers work individually, sometimes they entwine with each other but the intensity of their shared focus gives the sense that each dancer is an integral part within a greater whole; an image that speaks for both plant and human life.

In this double bill, Jeyasingh continues her flair for producing works that are as individual in style as their ideas are unique. While these two works stand alone, brought together they find a connection in their ideas of individuality and shared humanity.

Reviewer: Rachel Elderkin