Putting the regions on the map

Power Games, by Shane Shambhu, the debut production of Altered Skin which premieres at the Jerwood D

Power Games, by Shane Shambhu, the debut production of Altered Skin which premieres at the Jerwood DanceHouse, Ipswich tonight. This latest premiere continues to put Suffolk on the arts map and reinforces the need for regional funding. - Credit: Archant

As the Government gears up for another spending review, which will undoubtedly tell us that we are continuing to live beyond our means, the arts world is already mentally tightening its collective belt in preparation for the cuts which will inevitably follow.

Power Games, by Shane Shambhu, the debut production of Altered Skin which premieres at the Jerwood D

Power Games, by Shane Shambhu, the debut production of Altered Skin which premieres at the Jerwood DanceHouse, Ipswich tonight. This latest premiere continues to put Suffolk on the arts map and reinforces the need for regional funding. - Credit: Archant

The Arts Council has already made noises that it expects its next settlement not to be as generous as the last – although generous isn’t the word that most people would use, as the post-Olympic grant award didn’t restore Arts Council funds to the often-promised pre-Olympic levels.

So the bad news is that although there is less money in the kitty, the new figure is likely to be reduced still further.

But with all the belt tightening going on, it’s important for the powers-that-be to remember that the health of the nation’s cultural economy relies on allowing arts to flourish in the regions as well as staging high-profile events in London.

The health of the West End, Covent Garden, The Tate and the National Galleries is important, but without an extensive support network in the regions then the work in London will swiftly disappear. Many new shows start their lives in the regions and certainly many actors, artists, musicians and dancers learn their craft in establishments a long way from the M25.

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Indeed, some performers move from London to the regions because of the extra freedom they are given. One such performer is dancer and choreographer Shane Shambhu, who has set up his new company, Altered Skin, in Ipswich and has developed his latest production, Power Games, at the Jerwood DanceHouse.

Shane will be unveiling this latest work tonight, at 7pm. Trained in the South Asian dance form of Bharatanatyam, his work is an amalgam of dance and theatre.

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There is a strong narrative thread through his work. When asked if he creates dance or theatre, he says it is a true combination of both art forms.

“I like telling stories. I think creating work that engages an audience brings them in. I have a long background in dance but also a strong connection with theatre.

“I love producing work that is character-driven; I also love physical theatre. I have worked for Theatre Complicite in the past; they specialise in physical theatre, and working with them reaffirmed my love of this type of work.”

Power Games is the first production of Shane’s new company, Altered Skin. “It’s a company that reflects my way of working, that blurs the line between dance and theatre and produces work that is entertaining but also prompts the audience to think about contemporary issues and the forces that shape our world.”

Power Games tells the story of Deepak, a wealthy banker who finds his life is spiralling out of control. It’s obviously a tale of our times but how does this fit with Bharatanatyam, a usually-traditional form of south east Asian dance?

Shane explained that although Bharatanatyam was a traditional form of dance, in fact it is one of the oldest forms of dance in India. It is capable of being moulded to reflect the times in which it is performed.

“For many years Bharatanatyam was passed down as an oral tradition. It was preserved and passed down from generation to generation under the Devadasi system. Under this system women were dedicated to temples to serve the deity as dancers and musicians, forming part of the elaborate rituals. These highly talented artists were the sole repositories of the art until the early 20th century.

“At this time there was a renewal of interest in India’s cultural heritage and this prompted the educated elite to discover its beauty. Those early secular pioneers brought the dance out of the temple precincts and onto the stage.

“We are continuing that development. We acknowledge its traditional roots but are allowing it to reflect its place in the modern world.”

Another contemporary aspect was the way that the performance finds its ending. He said that audiences can influence the outcome of the evening by voting in a TV game-show style.

Shane explained that although he was born and raised in the East End, he finds Ipswich a wonderful place to be based. “I came here following my heart. Sadly, that relationship didn’t work out but I was really struck that Ipswich was a great place to live and work. So it was an easy decision to stay.

“Also, the waterfront and the Jerwood DanceHouse was a huge attraction. I think that Ipswich and Suffolk in general has a lot to offer. I think the New Wolsey Theatre is terrific and it’s good to link up with events like Pulse and HighTide – and Latitude, of course.”

He said that Ipswich was a perfect place to develop new work because of the professional facilities offered by the DanceHouse but, also, it also provided a wonderful launch pad for companies to either move into London or go on tour.

“Also, in terms of getting performers up from London, it’s great because it is just an hour on the train.”

He said that Suffolk’s cultural economy was very strong because it provided variety and the opportunity to see world-class theatre, dance and music without having to battle against London crowds or fight for expensive tickets.

The fact that Shane has established his new cutting-edge dance-theatre company in Suffolk is testimony to the health of the regions. Altered Skin combines with Pulse and HighTide in pioneering new work and promoting new artistic voices. With the help of schemes like Escalator, the Arts Council’s eastern region initiative to develop new acts from this part of the world, it provides a working demonstration of how important it is for funds to be directed to the regions – and to Suffolk in particular.

We are living through an extraordinarily rich period at the moment and it’s no coincidence that plenty of acts from Pulse are heading to the Edinburgh Festival and plays from HighTide are heading to London’s Soho and Bush Theatres, as well as Nuffield Theatre in Southampton.

After its Ipswich debut tonight, Power Games goes on tour before heading to the Edinburgh Fringe.

It all helps to put Suffolk and Ipswich on the map as a place where new, exciting, groundbreaking art is produced. It makes it part of a thriving cultural economy which services not only other regions but provides the lifeblood for London’s West End.

When the Government comes to determine how much money the Arts Council gets during the next review, it should remember that without the regions we wouldn’t have had that fabulous opening ceremony at The Olympics.

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