Material Men brings Indian dance, past and present, to Ipswich waterfront DanceHouse

Sooraj Subramaniam and Shailesh Bahoran in Material Men redux at the Jerwood DanceHouse on Ipswich W

Sooraj Subramaniam and Shailesh Bahoran in Material Men redux at the Jerwood DanceHouse on Ipswich Waterfront - Credit: Archant

Classical Indian dance and hip hop is combined in a new work at the DanceHouse in Ipswich. Arts editor Andrew Clarke found out more

An evening of dance that combines the traditions of Indian classical dance with the contemporary world of hip hop brings the personal stories of two Indian dancers Sooraj Subramaniam and Shailesh Bahoran to the stage of the Jerwood DanceHouse.

The piece Material Men Redux is a re-staged performance, created for the two dancers, by BBC Young Dancer judge Shobana Jeyasingh. The piece was originally created in 2015 as a celebration of the changing face of Indian dance as the performers were European Asians.

However, the work was revived and evolved further when Jeyasingh discovered that her dancers shared something else in common.

“In the course of talking to the dancers I discovered that they both had connections to the indentured labour system of the 19th century. As I continued to understand this really important part of colonial history I realised that I needed more than half an hour which was what the original production was designed for.

“It is now full length which means that there is more time to develop ideas. It includes a film which features historic archival photographic material. In Material Men the narrative was about the two dancers and their different journeys. In Material Men redux one dancer represents all indentured labourers and the other dancer represents what they left behind. The dancers play archetypal roles as well as being two men who chose different styles of dance. And the inclusion of historic texts sets the dance in a more political and specific context.”

Sooraj Subramaniam said that the process started with Shobana asking them about their family stories and about their history. “We had discussions about our own past and that is what initially shaped the piece. She was particularly interested in how cultural influences shaped our families journeys from India and it was embodied in us as two characters and in our performance style. One was street theatre, fully spontaneous and the other classical and rooted in tradition. She was interested in how these two styles meet in the bodies of these two people who happen to share a cultural heritage.

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“There’s a lot in there but it remains very accessible and engaging. It’s become Shobana’s commentary on our personal histories. Each of our families migrated from India because of our colonial past and that has taken more of a forefront role in this latest version of Material Men Redux while our personalities are still there, because the piece is made on us, the story has become more about the events of the past.

“My classical tradition represents India of the past. What the country was while Shailesh’s hip hop movement represents the world of today and what happened to all those people and it has been distilled into he is today.”

Shailesh Bahoran said that dance, but more importantly street dance, had always been an important part of his youth. Although proud of his Indian heritage he felt part of a modern urban world.

“I was born in Suriname but moved with my parents to Amsterdam when I was a child. I was no good at sports but enjoyed things like wrestling and martial arts movies, things I now realise were actually tightly choreographed!

“I started to dance when I was 15 and a friend showed me guys breakdancing in the local shopping centre. I loved the way these men were moving – breakdancing, locking and popping. It didn’t cost anything to join in and soon we were dancing together and performing as a group.”

Shobana Jeyasingh said that the two styles of dance are an integral part of the piece and a vital tool in the story-telling process – just as much as the vintage archive projections or the music.

“The differences in style are obvious as soon as the dancers begin to move. Sometimes I work with that difference to tell my story, at other times I work with what I see that they have in common – like movement isolation, virtuosity and showmanship.”

Music and visuals plays a huge part in the performance providing atmosphere and context. The performance is accompanied by a commissioned score by acclaimed Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin and played live on stage by The Smith Quartet with additional sound design by Leafcutter John.

This is then augmented by a filmed collage of archive footage and images brought together by film-maker and artist Simon Daw. Shobana said: “The images that we have chosen are some very early photographs of indentured workers leaving the Calcutta docks, the journey in the boats and the labourers themselves. However, the film is not meant to be illustrative or a documentary. We hope it will be more evocative and capture the experience of those who left India to work as indentured labourers.

“Migration is a huge issue at the moment and sometimes it’s easy to forget why people migrate. It is a phenomenon that is not unique to us at this time. I think it is good to know British history from other less mainstream voices. In Material Men redux I hope that we hear such voices.”

Material Men Redux by Shobana Jeyasingh Dance is at the Jerwood DanceHouse on Friday February 24 at 7:30pm.