Material Men redux is a re-working of Shobana Jeyasingh’s 2015 piece, Material Men, which explored the biographies of two dancers: Sooraj Subramaniam and Shailesh Bahoran. Now, Jeyasingh has taken the same point of departure in a different direction, highlighting the history of dislocation and indenture experienced by these two characters.
Jeyasingh’s narrative is concerned with the indentured workers of mid-nineteenth century. Indian labourers were contracted to make up for the shortfall caused by the abolition of slavery. Fed false promises of the land of milk and honey, workers experienced terrible conditions, abuse, poor pay, and often never returned home.
The choreography used to depict this more narratorial aspect of Material Men redux is akin to physical theatre. Jeyasingh combines staggering, heavy movements and a length of orange silk (signifying in turn the authority of a uniform and the crack of a whip) to give a rather literal account of power and submission. However, as the movements are subtle and repetitive, and the lighting dark, it is hard to generate a connection with the characters and their struggle.
The British Government kept meticulous records of all indentured workers. Jeyasingh uses archive footage to great emotional impact; flickering video projection and recordings of the terrible fates suffered by so many open our eyes to this usually hidden period of history. However, it does feel a formulaic, trite method to convey the emotional impact of the story.
Contrasting dance styles evoke different aspects of what it means to be an emigrant. Subramaniam’s classical Indian bharatanatyam, with its characteristic dramatic stamps and intricate use of the fingers and eyes, speaks of the myths and memories of a distant homeland; in this case India. Symbolic gesture and meticulous repeated patterns reflect the importance of ritual in Hindu culture, such as the fear of the “kala pani”, the open black waters of the ocean.
Bahoran’s hip hop and break dance represent the undertones of resistance, marginality and self-invention of migrants. Isolated, violent movements speak of the hardships experienced by slaves and indentured labourers. Bursts of athletic break-dancing give way to frustration, strength and an underlying, unbreakable sense of endurance.
The strength of Material Men redux lies in Jeyasingh’s ability to fuse these two different dance styles, thus creating a new dialogue between east and west, old and new. Her choreography highlights their similarities, from swaying necks to explosive leaps. Classical Indian dance and hip hop intertwine, until we are left with a final image of these two different dancers performing in perfect unison.
Live accompaniment from The Smith Quartet adds another dimension to this melting pot. The cyclical string music – pulsating rhythm provided by the cello – drives the movement forward. This modern classical music creates a third strand of the dialogue.
Material Men redux promises an exciting, fresh look at the history of migration, and the effect it has on society today. Although she relies on the tried and tested use of archive footage to hone in on the power of the story, Jeyasingh successfully creates a dynamic dialogue between old and new, which celebrates the power of emigrants to re-forge and re-invent past histories and future stories.
Material Men redux is on a UK tour until 29 April; further details here.