Show People: Why must an Indian dance be exotic?: Shobana Jeyasingh

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THE CAFE at the Place Theatre is still dark, not yet open for customers. Shobana Jeyasingh, choreographer and former dancer, glides to my table and sits down. She is tall, graceful, beautiful, with glossy black hair and kohl round her almond-shaped eyes. There's no coffee, so we're more or less obliged to start the interview. Just as well: Jeyasingh is not one for small talk. She thinks clearly and speaks fluently, using words like 'rhetoric' and 'demonstrable'.

Aged 35 and with a masters degree in Shakespeare Studies from the University of Sussex, Jeyasingh grew up in a professional Madras family where education was seen as her right. Her grandmother had a degree and her mother is a retired maths lecturer. The family comes from what Jeyasingh calls 'the new India', the India that sells arms and has a space industry, not the India of the British Raj.

The family still lives in Madras, and Jeyasingh visits once, sometimes twice, a year. Since leaving India in the late Seventies, she has carved out a successful career in this country, inventing a dance language of her own which draws on her experiences as an Indian woman living in 20th- century London.

To Jeyasingh, the British and Indian worlds are seamlessly joined. She is not in an arranged marriage but lives with the husband of her choice. She takes the direct flight from London to Madras, thinks it's great having the menu in English and Tamil, and arrives in time for dinner feeling she's crossed no more than a few time zones. The idea of roots, of finding one place, she dismisses as old-fashioned. 'One has to redefine this whole process,' she says. 'One can be multi-rooted without feeling any conflict about it.'

She's aware of racism - 'you notice it if you're not white' - but any feelings she may have as an outsider come from being a woman and a dancer. It may be a weakness, she says, but she does not see issues as a starting point for her work. 'I got very depressed about the BNP in the East End, but I won't go off and make a piece about it. Racism informs my dance in a much more diffuse way. For example, in Configurations, there is a section for three Indian dancers and one who is alienated from the others. These are the strategies one uses if one expresses oneself in an abstract way.'

Jeyasingh has reinvented Bharatha Natyam (classical Indian dance) by extending its essence and ditching 'the baggage' - the colourful costumes, heavy make-up and jewellery. She finds new ways of using the expressive hands, the fluid torso, the strong legs and the footwork, 'what people sometimes call stamping'.

Her work is widely praised and has been showered with awards this year - a pounds 10,000 Sainsbury's award, a Time Out award, a pounds 25,000 Prudential award. She's also on the short list for the prestigious pounds 30,000 Digital Premier Award. Her autumn tour contains a new piece by herself, ROMANCE . . . with footnotes, and Delicious Arbour, a piece by Richard Alston, former head of Rambert. 'Many people thought it bizarre that Alston should make work for five classical Indian dancers,' she says. 'But Bharatha Natyam relies on certain principles that anyone can get a handle on; they are not culture-

specific.' She chose Alston, she says, because he is a mature and experienced choreographer whose dance has a classicism of its own. 'It seemed totally logical,' she adds.

It's easy to get carried away by Jeyasingh's optimism and enthusiasm. But not everyone thinks Shobana Jeyasingh has got it made. Many people - audiences, Indians living in Britain and some critics - object to her work and think she should be conforming more to the

traditional idea of classical Indian dance. They think her reworking of Bharatha Natyam and her contemporary themes dull, frankly, and a betrayal of Eastern culture.

One critic wrote that Indian dance can be used to exotic effect and that Jeyasingh was not exotic enough. 'It's strange,' she says, 'the idea of an English critic telling me it's my duty as an Indian to be exotic.' One day a smartly dressed Indian man stopped her in the street and said he liked her work, but could she please stop changing. The man was in a three-piece suit and she guessed he had a fax machine and a microwave. 'He was participating not in Western culture but in a contemporary 20th-century culture that is common to Singapore, Bombay and London. As a dancer, I wonder why people think I have no right to participate in a culture that everyone else seems to be enjoying.'

What makes her current work unpalatable to some is that when she started performing in 1981, she was very much a traditional Bharatha Natyam dancer. Then, in 1988, she switched from being an interpreter to a creator. She started making work about herself and collaborated for the first time with a Western musician, Michael Nyman. 'The work I wanted to do could not be done with one body and could not be done with me in it.' So she stopped dancing and formed her own company.

Another reason Jeyasingh thinks she is seen as iconoclastic is because of the Western media image of Indian women. 'I am appalled by the portrayals of Indian women: the forced marriages, the child prostitutes, witchcraft in southern India. It's not that these don't exist, but what about the women engineers, the women bank managers? You never see articles about them. There is always this exoticised and sensational portrayal of Indian women.'

She looks at her watch, realises that the dancers are waiting for her, and glides out the way she came in.

Nottingham Playhouse, 0602 419419, Tues; Darlington Arts Centre, 0325 483168, Thurs; Newcastle Playhouse, 091-232 7079, Fri.