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Barbara Newman on cultural identity

Posted on June 7, 2017

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Material Men photo Chris Nash 1

Suddenly, the most engaging dances around deal with cultural identity and immigration, the same topics that fill newspaper headlines.

In 2015, Shobana Jeyasingh conceived Material Men to display two performers and their specialised talents – Shailesh Bahoran’s for hip hop, Sooraj Subramaniam’s for Bharata Natyam. Enlarging the original piece to absorb a slice of history, she has shaped a fraught subject, the forced migration of indentured labourers, into a haunting study of fear and pride.

Fluid as the “kala pani,” the black ocean waters that carried workers from India and China to British colonies during the 19th century, Material Men redux casts the two dancers as both master and slave, burden and prop. Neither man dominates, neither is always dependent. A sari serves as the chains binding them into a cramped unit, then as restrictive reins, controlled by one as the other strains against them.

Delivered impersonally, the recited names of the dead and a projected gallery of faces enhance the historical background. The nuanced movement, however, pinpoints the trials thousands endured and brings dead men to life. The dancers lift and lower invisible cargo, spinning dizzily beneath its weight; they struggle to remain upright, manipulating their buckling limbs. They shiver in response to a silent whip and raise their cupped hands to beg.

One man dreams of India, whispering rhythms as his stamping feet and fanned fingers recall the ritualised abstraction of the ancient dance – delicate, filigreed – and the reality of anger and exhaustion. The other man escapes his nightmare of servitude by breakdancing, soothing his broken body by breaking it at his own command. Nostalgia and courage blend as the men dance in turn, almost in competition, drawing gradually closer until their styles become complementary and their overlapping bodies mutually supportive.

Without dousing history in sentiment or enlisting our pity, Jeyasingh opens our eyes to unfamiliar tragedies and then leaves us to consider them on our own.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s M¡longa, the first big tango production directed and choreographed by a non-Argentinian artist, propels tango out of the dancehalls of Buenos Aires and right up to the minute, which changes it considerably. Now that more people probably follow Strictly Come Dancing than attend live performances, the road to international success is paved with extravagence. To the television audience, tango means glittering costumes, flashy moves, swirling lights and dramatic – albeit clearly artificial – relationships between partners. Speedy footwork counts for a lot; so do joint-challenging lifts.

The brief black and white films of old Argentine dancehalls that open M¡longa show you something else: everyday clothes, suggestive moves, emotional undercurrents between partners. Subtlety. Hesitations. Romantic atmosphere, thick as smoke.

By capitalising on modern preferences, Cherkaoui has created a world-wide success that says more about the public than about the dance form. Like a concert of variations on a theme, the musical selections identify the 25 numbers; patterns of light shift beneath the dancers’ feet; cutout figures painted with projected bystanders surround them; street scenes rush past on film. “Can you take it all in?” my guest asked. “I’m so distracted I can’t focus.”

Exactly, and wasn’t something lost? “Your identity isn’t confirmed by where you come from, it also depends on where you go to,” Cherkaoui has said. “I think a dance style is a living breathing thing that can voyage and travel.”

Of course he’s right, but tango has always captured the mystery of human relationships. In one trio, three men slipped in and out of each other’s arms in an old-fashioned ballroom embrace as if pivoting around a single axis. In another trio, a lone woman slid between a man and woman like a ghost or a secret, maybe private to one of them, maybe shared. If the other 23 numbers represent tango’s 21st-century evolution, the dance has left mystery, allure and its cultural identity behind and sailed into heartless new territory.

Pictured: Top Shailesh Bahoran and Sooraj Subramaniam in Material Men redux. Photograph by Chris Nash. Bottom A scene from M¡longa. Photograph by Tristram Kenton.

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at

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