Acclaimed choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh MBE gives an insight into her work and creative process

Shobana Jeyasingh © Photo JP Masclet

Shobana Jeyasingh MBE, choreographer and artistic director of Shobana Jeyasingh Dance has been creating dynamic and fearless work for 30 years. Shobana’s unique contemporary dance work is often described as ‘intellectual’ and ‘visceral’.

With Shobana Jeyasingh Dance’s commitment to creating bold and uncompromising work, Maya Pindar asks this exceptional and prolific artist about ‘Material Men Redux’, her creative process and the challenges she’s faced in her career. 

Tell me about the piece you created called Material Men Redux?

MMR is a work choreographed for two male dancers. They are both of Indian descent but have ended up in Europe, one working as a classical Indian dancer and the other as a hip hop dancer. The historical event that led to this migration was the British and European indentured labour system which was introduced to replace the end of slave labour. The work is part biography, part history and totally about two amazing performers.

This piece explores cross-cultural connections that are also visible in everyday British life, how does your own experience influence your work?

The simple fact that I am Indian and live in London puts me in a culturally hybrid context. Contemporary dance by its nature draws from the interest and experience of its creatives. I am interested in margins and centres and the dynamic dialogues between the two. For example, when I made a dance work for a science festival on cell division, I found myself drawn to the fact that that microtubules emerge from the margins to connect with chromosomes and that this journey was fraught with tension.

Can you tell me about your choreographic process?

Concepting the work and finding about its theatrical possibilities is probably the first step. Depending on what the subject is, this usually means reading, looking and thinking.

It’s also the time for talking to potential collaborators who will make the creative team. I usually try and have some sessions in the studio at a very early stage where ideas can be workshopped and some dramaturgical structure emerges – at least in theory! This is followed by the rehearsal period with the dancers. Movement generation through tasks is something that I find fascinating and stimulating.  It’s always good to have the set in the studio at this stage . Composition is the key choreographic task and the most challenging. I am always aware that the things that work in the studio do not always work in the theatre. The period when we transfer the studio work to the stage and finally integrate all the aspects of design can be really exciting or incredibly depressing!

What influences or inspirations do you draw on when devising new work?

Books, films, exhibitions, talking…

Have you encountered any hurdles along your journey to becoming an internationally renowned British female choreographer, and how did you overcome them?

There are literally innumerable hurdles and I don’t think I have overcome them. The lack of trust and credibility is one of the major hurdles. These acts of discrimination are not tangible and hard to prove and discuss. Women’s creative territory has been historically circumscribed and such prejudices go deep and often unrecognised.

Do you have any advice for young aspiring choreographers, who want to ‘go against the grain’ with their choreographic work?

There is no option other than to stick at it! It’s always good to have some allies.

You have collaborated with many diverse artists over the years. Do you have an artist that is still on your collaborative wish list that you would love to work with in the future?

I would love to work with writers like Kazuo Ishiguro and a visual artist like Sam Taylor Wood (who is now known as Sam Taylor Johnson).

Finally, if you could meet your 16-year-old self, what one piece of advice would you offer her?

I would be tempted to say “Real life is not like a novel”. However I was determined not take any advice when I was sixteen so I probably wouldn’t bother! 

Shobana Jeyasingh has created over 60 works, discover these incredible pieces, watch videos, find out about workshops and more at shobanajeyasingh.co.uk.

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