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Choreographed by Shobana Jeyasingh

Played by The Smith Quartet, Roger Heaton (clarinets), Melinda Maxwell (oboe), OG (keyboards)


It’s 1990, and if I can be said to have a career as a composer, it’s mainly because of my involvement with dance, in particular the wonderful Second Stride.


Shobana Jeyasingh is making a five-minute piece for TV, called Late, it’s for The Late Show, there’s a week till the broadcast and Michael Nyman has just dropped out, ho hum, a bit late surely? Shobana is from Madras, but she has been living in England for some time. She started her career doing solo performances of Bharata Natyam, the South Indian classical dance, and has since been making very successful pieces, increasingly subverting the form, making ensemble pieces instead of the traditional solos, introducing Western elements, causing irritation to lovers of purity and delighting those who like mongrel culture.


She’s nearly finished the choreography. She hands me a sheet of squared paper, like your first ever maths exercise book. It’s covered with strange hieroglyphics, her own notations for the rhythms of the dancers’ feet, very important in Bharata Natyam. The upper part of the body is flowing and expressive, and the feet are slapping away on the floor, very earthy, quite funky actually, though that’s not really the point. In a classical version of the dance, these rhythms would be picked up and played with by the tabla player, but I’m going to interpret them, pretty explicitly, through melodic Western instruments, so we’re going to get a very direct relationship between the dance and the music, for my taste, extremely satisfying, the intention being that the melodies flow like the dancers’ upper bodies, but that the rhythms inside the melodies jive along with the dancers’ feet.


Later we made a longer version of the piece (always a dangerous thing to do) for the stage.


Singers: Adey Grummet, Melanie Pappenheim, Manickam Yogeswaran, Michael Dore, Jeremy Birchall

Directed by Shobana Jeyasingh


Shobana Jeyasingh was asked to make an outdoor piece for the Southbank Centre in London. We made Axaxaxas Mlö together.


It follows the structure of a classical Carnatic (South Indian) piece. There are (almost) no recognisable lyrics. Carnatic music uses two mnemonic systems, one for rhythm, one for melody. Konnakol is for remembering drum patterns, swara for remembering raga melodies (sa rig a ma pa dha ni sa - similar to the Western solfège system) The system I constructed for Axaxaxas Mlö was an extension of these two. The resulting language, nonsense semantically but sense musically, reminded Shobana of Borges’ story The Library of Babel, about a library containing every possible book of a certain length, with every possible combination of letters. So the five singers sat at a table reading, as if they were in the process of discovering new languages. Axaxaxas Mlö was a vehicle for the Carnatic singer Manickam Yogeswaran, a key member of The Shout - though the other four singers also work their socks off.



Choreographed by Shobana Jeyasingh

Singer: Melanie Pappenheim

How can we live in the city? By cooking of course.


Shobana takes the processes of cookery and applies them to human bodies – add, stir, whisk, reduce, marinate – to produce a very active piece. The music is supportive, intense, imbued with the spirit of the extraordinary American maverick composer Conlon Nancarrow, who made complex hyperactive pieces for pianola.



Just Add Water? is an extension of City:zen. Here is an interview with Shobana.


How did you get the idea for Just Add Water?

I was sitting in a restaurant in Upper Street, north London, with the composer Orlando Gough, and we were just talking about the diversity of food and cooking and ingredients. It was around the time that citizenship tests had been introduced in the UK, so we were just contrasting that kind of very planned, bureaucratic initiative with what was happening in the restaurant, which just relied on people’s interest in food to bring them together. That is a more organic move towards integration: it was happening without being directed. So those ideas were the starting point.


It’s very striking that the dancers speak in this piece, which they haven’t done in previous works. Why did you use speech here?

I was following on from a project I did in Hong Kong about two years ago. Part of the commission there was to use text, which I hadn’t really done that before, so I was experimenting with new ideas. I did not want the dancers to be actors and for me the “text” was always produced by the dancer’s body. So I started playing with the idea of the dancer’s voice as if it were another limb, like an extra leg or an arm. I would choreograph the voice not so much for the literal meaning but also for its texture, rhythm and shape.


You use recipes as the text for this piece, which neatly brings together these ideas. How did you choose the recipes?

The dancers chose their own recipes, which the writer Rani Ramamoorthy and I then worked on. We didn’t want to use the text like a script which is then voiced, like a playscript. It was part of the choreography, composed to serve the movement. So in the first section, which we called “Home Truths”, the dancers all show different personalities in how they move. The recipes add another dimension to that, but they are part of the same portrait.


So at first, the dancers simply present themselves. What happens to them over the course of the piece?

In the first section we meet the dancers, then in the second section the dancers meet each other. It’s a kind of base-one stage of interaction, as if the cook has cut them up and put them together in a bowl. The encounters are quite confrontational. Everyone stays separate: they’re not doing anything to each other apart from defining their differences. We called this section “Food Fight”, because that is what fights and arguments are about.

The next section we called “Add”. For the first time, there are trios and quartets, not just solos and duets, so a new level of composition emerges from that. At the same time, the music takes more of a leading role. In the first sections, the soundscore had used chopping and frying noises to support the text, or made room for the words to be spoken and enhance the idea of fragmentation and conflict. But in “Add” the music propels the dancers, and it prepares to take over the spoken text from the dancers.


The next section, “Stir”, is introduced on an empty stage by projected visuals. There is quite a dramatic change of gear as we prepare to enter a more abstract world. The ingredients are ground to smaller and smaller bits. The video is abstract but with a lot of motion in it – everything is stirred around, the patterns become quite molecular.


The dancers return for the final section, which carries on that molecular idea of things happening that are invisible – changes that you can sense more than see. We called this part “Marinade”, because the marinating ingredients may look motionless but there is a lot happening on a molecular level. This section has a very different energy, with lower lighting. Instead of the recognisable words and clear shapes that started the piece, everything is less defined. The dancers’ differences have been reconfigured, and new connections are being made.


So that’s a kind of integration? Not an ordered mixing or a homogeneous blend, but more like a biochemical process. Like cooking?

I think for surface differences to change we need the time to marinate. The deeper we go, the greater the chances of finding new and radical partnerships – like Heston Blumenthal’s famous bacon-and-egg ice cream.

Dancer performing Just Add Water?

Choreographed by Shobana Jeyasingh

With Avatâra Ayuso, Kamala Devam, Khamlane Halsackda, Jose Agudo, Noora Kela, Mavin Khoo

Singer: Melanie Pappenheim

Just add water


Dancers: Dane Hurst, Sunbee Han, Estela Merlos, Catarina Carvalho

Singers: Jonathan Baker, Marcia Bellamy, Elaine Mitchener, Alice Privett

Choregraphy: Shobana Jeyasingh

Set: Ben Cullen Williams

Costumes: Cottweiler

Lighting: Adam Caree


A reassessment of the work and life of Egon Schiele, particularly his ambiguous relationship with his models and his fraught personal relationships. The (recorded) music features the voice of Jonathan Baker. I wrote some songs for him, but we also worked together with me making suggestions and him improvising (behaving like choreographer and dancer!) and I used his improvised material to construct the music, to tell the stories Shobana and I wanted to tell. The music is heavily influenced by two of my favourite composers Kurt Weill and Luciano Berio, composers who in their different ways really knew how to write for voice.


Watch here

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