The Patrick Centre at the Birmingham Hippodrome
March 27, 2017
One of the great pleasures of theatre-going is finding work that takes a new look at the world we thought we knew. Choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh’s Material Men Redux (a reworking of a 2015 work) does this with room to spare. She raids history, roaming far and wide geographically as her dancers explore the plight of nineteenth-century indentured workers, in effect hoodwinked slaves supplying the agricultural labour for British land-owners across the globe. The result is moving, nay harrowing, but Jeyasingh’s story-telling is richly sophisticated, fusing world dance styles in a refreshing way.
Its two dancers were trained in very different disciplines: Malaysian-born Sooraj Subramaniam studied classical Indian bharatanatyam while Shailesh Bahoran, from Surinam, is a self-taught hip-hop performer, but intriguingly they share a heritage linked to these exploited ‘workers’.
Jeyasingh explains that this revisiting of her earlier core material allows classical dance to evoke the homeland myths and memories of the displaced workers while hip-hop brings in more modern ideas of marginality and resistance through self invention. The good news is that despite the potential for intrusion with these weighty purposes, Material Men Redux works, the whole creating a deeply resonant production that’s involving from the start and features some beautiful and deeply affecting passages.
Simon Daw’s iconically simple set, a series of asymmetrically arranged chrome poles becomes successively a forest, prison bars and most inventively somehow a fragmented screen for video projection. Floriaan Ganzevoort’s lighting is unobtrusively atmospheric, enhanced by the electronic sound input of award-winning musician Leafcutter John, while live on-stage The Smith Quartet performs Tashkent-born Elena Kats-Chernin’s ambitious score.
With its multi-media mix this elegant work takes a look at not only the historical movement of peoples but also the history of the dance they took with them and how it continues to evolve. This is the powerful face of modern dance: political, historically informed, compassionate, moving, even disturbing, and technically superb. The hip-hop/odissi finale said it all. In nurturing this new, hybrid form, Shobana Jeyasingh may just be cradling a new classical style.