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Hands, Eyes, Mind, Emotion

Posted on October 9, 2018

How often do you want to see a performance repeated right away, immediately, from start to finish? That’s what I longed for at the end of Shane Shambhu’s Confessions of a Cockney Temple Dancer, a solo brimming with more subtle invention and detailed information than I could absorb in one viewing.

Speaking, dancing and miming with warmth and intelligence, for 75 minutes Shambhu fused biography, humour, social commentary and electrifying artistry as if each generated the other. Completely unknown to me until that evening at The Place, he is an actor, dancer, director and choreographer, with a company of his own called Altered Skin and experience in film, with the theatre ensemble Complicite and with Shobana Jeyasingh.

His personal and professional history began in East Ham, where he was sent to dance class at 11 because he was very fat – how often do dancers admit that publicly? – but “never told my friends I was learning Indian dance. I was afraid they’d make fun of me.” Matching action to words, he turned his back to show the private practicing that casual bypassers must have seen, which launched a daily exploration of Bharata Natyam that has continued for 31 years.

This classical Indian art form, he explained, originated in Kerala and developed from temple rituals. Accompanying his words, his hands pulled Kerala out of thin air, drawing a long diagonal in space and a narrow vertical wiggle that descended in front of him like a dangling ribbon.

As his story unfolded, his body did too, transporting us from a school playground – “I used to hang on the monkey bars in the hope I’d get taller” – to his initial encounters with his revered teachers – humbly prone, face down, hands clasped in respect – to his first job, as a marketing manager. There the narration subsided as the rhythmic mime of typing propelled him into a stamping, flickering burst of Bharata Natyam.

Rising one above the other, fingers opening like flowers, his hands introduced a dance passage capturing his parents’ excitement at taking UK citizenship. Realigning his head, shoulders, eyes and stance minutely, he itemised a range of Hindu gods, each unique in temperament. He danced without a colourful costume or the traditional ankle bells so the focus, he said, would fall on the interior aspect of the movement, but by the time he explained that choice, the exquisite precision and seamless flow of his gestures had already defined our focus.

Captivated by his ability to alter the emotional atmosphere in a split second, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that, at 24, he began teaching his teachers’ students. With the generosity that marks every dedicated teacher, he led us gently through a fundamental lesson in Bharata Natyam. Step by step and gesture by gesture, we saw a vital progression realised: Where the hands go, the eyes go. Where the eyes go, the mind goes. Where the mind goes, the mood and emotion go. Where emotion goes, pleasure is created.

It’s easy to talk about these concepts. Only an artist like Shambhu, who can also articulate them with his body, reveals the crucial links between them and the expressive effect of forging those links.

For more information, including tour dates until March 2019, visit alteredskin.org.

Pictured: Shane Shambhu’s Confessions of a Cockney Temple Dancer. Photographs courtesy of Altered Skin.

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 http://barbaranewmandance.net

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