Seeta Patel: Not Today’s Yesterday
Patrick Studio at the Birmingham Hippodrome
October 23, 2018
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” So wrote George Orwell. ’twas ever thus. Not Today’s Yesterday, a collaboration between British bharatanatyam artist Seeta Patel and Australian choreographer Lina Limosani (whose fabulous The Spinners was one of the highlights in Edinburgh this year) considers just that in a work that looks at how history is revised and airbrushed.
It begins like a comforting bedtime story. “Once upon a time in a faraway land…,” a place with “rivers of chocolate” and “rain like diamonds,” we are told by a recorded voice. Standing on a box and dressed in a fine silver-grey Indian costume that suggests high rank, a goddess even, Patel illustrates the text, her body telling the story as much as the words. A mirror behind her magnifies the number of limbs in particular. Limosani’s choreography is one of those rare beasts, a complete integration of Bharatanatyam and contemporary dance; one that feels remarkably fresh and of today.
Patel is a fabulous performer. She performs the choreography superbly but better still, she fills the stage with her presence. You cannot fail but to be sucked in. Hands and arms move with grace and clarity. Her eyes are especially expressive. You feel like she is talking to you personally.
Unfortunately, the choice was made to have her lip-sync the words. It’s very obvious and an unnecessary distraction, especially given that she doesn’t do it all the time, leaving off and picking up for no apparent reason.
She tells us about hair, cleverly using a braid that hangs from above. In many cultures, women’s hair in particular is an important part of identity and can mean many things. We hear how it protects and guides. When the hair is cut, so are so many links.
On the floor, Patel moves Perspex shapes forming then into mountain ranges and ships as the story continues. It is those ships who bring people from afar. Travellers who were welcomes and intoxicated their hosts with gifts. Slowly, you realise where this is going as, almost inevitably, tradition (and let’s remember that tradition itself is not static and continually evolves) and the newcomers’ different cultures soon collide.
The soundtrack changes from soothing to a mash-up of speeches by Western leaders from the past. There’s a hint of thunder as the musical accompaniment gets violent. The fairy tale takes a decidedly dark turn when Patel appears behind a Perspex screen. Stripped of her costume, her identity, and now dressed in simple nondescript black vest and shorts, it feels like she is in a prison. She mouths at us but we cannot hear. Whitewash (and the colour is hugely significant) is poured slowly down the translucent screen. Patel lies behind it as if being crushed by it. The “forests part” and the “elephants bow their heads” to the new arrivals, we are told.
The wash being smeared into a hazy mess can be read as a metaphor for the messy integration of cultures. Patel wipes a window and peers through. Under it all, she is still there, somewhere. Soon, though, she is told to “get over it” as part of a brilliantly grotesque shadow play that is reminiscent of Gerald Scarfe at his venomous best. Using her hands and arms, Patel creates a sharply threatening beast that sometimes appears to comfort, but that’s mostly vicious-looking horns and claws.
It ends with no answers. The now white braid is folded into the shape of a baby that falls to the floor at the sound of a gunshot. There’s a final rumble of thunder. But in highlighting matters, perhaps, just perhaps all is not lost.
Limosani and Patel are careful not to name countries in the work although the publicity indicates they believe the subject matter is a particular issue in Western democracies, pointing the finger at Britain and Australia in particular. The reality is that people worldwide and regardless of history and political orientation conceal or rewrite the past to suit their own narratives, including countries washing or burying things they would rather everyone forgot. As Patel has admitted, even bharatanatyam’s complex social and political history has been airbrushed.
It’s actually not an issue about nations, it’s about those in power hiding, rewriting or dressing up the past to suit their own agendas. It’s something committed by right and left, by democracies and autocracies, by those who claim to speak for freedom and those who it is believed do not. Whoever, the result is always the same, some voices, some stories, are at best damped down, at worst silenced altogether.
That’s absolutely not to deny anything Limosani and Patel have to say. Not Today’s Yesterday is a reasoned, thoughtful and immensely powerful piece of political dance theatre in which they highlight the issues well. They raise some important questions and leave much to contemplate. Rightly, they demand to be heard. But like almost all historical narratives or reflections, theirs too is only part of the story.