Bodies versed in every language

May 21, 2004

South Asian techniques have been neglected in UK dance schools, but that is about to change. Chris Wood speaks to two women who are enriching the culture of choreography.

The more optimistic assessments of globalisation stress that it has turned us all into citizens of the world. We now know everyone else's business. We worry about the politics of Chechnya and the fate of the rain forests. We are familiar with the work of musicians in Mali and can buy ingredients to make authentic Thai food.

Yet the global jigsaw still has some missing pieces.

Madras-born dancer Shobana Jeyasingh is helping to address one such omission by advising the London Contemporary Dance School (LCDS) on the content of a strand of South Asian dance that from September will, for the first time, form part of the school's contemporary dance degree course. Not before time, according to Jeyasingh.

"If you look at literature, you can see a wide variety of cultures in English writing," she points out. "Monica Ali, Ben Okri, Salman Rushdie.

And the same in visual arts - a real cultural diversity. But in dance for various reasons it hasn't happened. Within institutions like The Place" - the London home of the LCDS - "students haven't had the choice of broadening their cultural references. To date, everything they've learnt is eurocentric. It would be unthinkable in other disciplines. A literature student reads literature by people in other cultures; your education isn't complete otherwise. But in dance it's taken this long."

South Asian dance has been on the mind of LCDS director Veronica Lewis for some time. A few years ago she and Jeyasingh tried to set up a graduate apprentice scheme to teach South Asian dance. But, she recalls, "we were unable to recruit even at the postgraduate level. So we thought we'd better develop this South Asian specialism in our ordinary BA course."

The Asian strand is part of an effort at the LCDS - founded in 1966 - to ensure that the curriculum reflects the multiethnicity of the UK and Europe, from where most of its 170 students are drawn. In spite of a strong Asian dance presence on British stages - where the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company and others have a high profile - the possibilities for learning the art have been strictly limited.

"For the past few years we've been very aware that there are no opportunities in Europe for South Asian dancers to train full time," Lewis says, "especially if they want to specialise in contemporary South Asian dance. There are amazing South Asian choreographers in Britain, yet they're having difficulty recruiting people to work with. The dancers they have access to have either got lots of South Asian experience, or contemporary experience, or ballet experience, but they're very unlikely to have trained in all."

As one of those choreographers, Jeyasingh is familiar with the dilemma.

"It's a question of having dancers who have the reference points," she says. "I don't use dancers who are only interested in Indian classical dance, but if they are, it is another colour to your palette. In literature, someone like Zadie Smith or Salman Rushdie has an incredible mix of references. The same thing has to happen in dance - especially in Asian dance. As urban migrants, our terms of reference are very multicultural. If British institutions are only turning out dancers who can do ballet, when people like me want to choreograph, we find the dancers'

references very limited. It's as if you're an artist working with only three colours."

The students of South Asian dance will take the full range of LCDS classes - which take place over a 36-week year and can involve as many as seven hours a day working on improvisation, repertory, human biology, teaching skills and much else. The South Asian components have been developed in conjunction with professionals such as Jeyasingh and with Akademi, a dance agency formed 25 years ago to promote Asian dance. Akademi's director Mira Kaushik is hoping the course will lead to a new breed of professional Asian dancer.

"Now you won't have to be a part-time South Asian dancer as well as an accountant or a lawyer," she says. 'There's always been that duality: if you're a dancer you have to have something else. Now you'll be able to study South Asian dance full time and become a BA."

The idea is that not only ethnic Asians will apply, as the benefits of South Asian dance apply to all. Jeyasingh claims: "All students of dance, for their general education, should be interested in other forms of moving." And Veronica Lewis adds: "We would expect students to have some experience of South Asian dance, but that doesn't mean they have to be culturally South Asian. Any knowledge of classical technique - such as South Asian - will give you a long-term grounding and enable you to train your body so you can have a long, safe career. All students here do ballet every day, even though they're doing a contemporary dance degree. The South Asian dancers will do the same."

Lewis was gratified by the interest shown at an open day last November, and is quietly optimistic that the venture will be a success. "We've had lots of inquiries," she says. Auditions for the four to six places envisaged for the first year were held in early May. The plan is to start small and develop gradually over three years. "We're not extending the overall number of students we train at The Place," Lewis says. "The training we give is better given to small numbers. It's elite - but not elitist."

"It's obviously going to take time," says Jeyasingh. "The body takes longer to change than something like language skills. Changing the culture of the body is much tougher work. But there are already some dancers who are multifaceted and multilingual in dance terms, and now hopefully there'll be more of them."

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