DANCE / Map of the world: Judith Mackrell reviews Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company at The Place

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The Independent Culture
WATCHING Shobana Jeyasingh's Configurations straight after the prologue of a traditional solo of Bharatha Natyam dance is like seeing the work of a jeweller expand into powerful, confident sculpture. In the first dance you are dazzled by glittering angles, delicate gestures and concentrated ornamentation; in the second you see movements sketched into broad planes and lines, you see energy travelling through space, you see tough, tensile strength. You also see a group of women who - stripped of the elaborate adornment and sweetly expressive demeanour of their traditional image - look unmistakably like citizens of the late 20th century.

Configurations has been reworked from the 1988 piece that Jeyasingh made to a string quartet by Michael Nyman. In this new version she has lost none of the percussive vigour she first drew from the music's urgent rhythms, nor the peremptory emotional charge. What seems more assertive is the choreography's form. As before, elements of Bharatha Natyam have been elegantly deconstructed so that the dance's basic components stand large, free and clear. Jeyasingh has also rebuilt these sparer moves into bigger dance structures, pitting groups of dancers against each other, composing forceful lines and curves and, above all, exploiting the collective emotional and visceral power of her five dancers. The expressive tension of the movement stalks the music note for note, both climaxing in an ending that is demonic in its ferocity.

Intense as Nyman's music is, it would be hard for the dance not to get swept along in its wake. In Making of Maps, though, Jeyasingh and her movement stand alone. Inspired by medieval Mappa Mundi, the piece is an attempt to 'assimilate' Jeyasingh's own complex times. What is overridingly clear in it is the sense of a mind and an aesthetic located intriguingly between west and east, present and past.

The score is a mix of classical Indian music, composed by R A Ramamani, and Alistair MacDonald's layered electronic tape of speech and urban bustle. As pure movement, the dance is pushed further than ever from its origins. A familiar Bharatha Natyam lunge launches into a powerful role; classical gestures and footwork are performed so attenuatedly as to be hardly recognisable. Jeyasingh plays so daringly with extremes of speed, and weaves her dancers into such complex almost random patterns, that at moments we seem adrift in a strange and cerebral dance fantasy.

Yet the choreography works a compelling alchemy in that you also see the dancers mapping out a kind of spiritual geography. A passage of tough, angled movements, set to abrasive electronic sounds, conjures vividly the image of rocky headlands and emotional crisis; a section where the dancers drift gently past in a rolling canon makes you think of benign waves and reflective calm. It's an extraordinary, ambitious work not least for the fact that in it Jeyasingh transcends the cultural differences to create a strong and independent dance language of her own.

Tours until 30 Jan 1992 (for details: 071-383 3252).