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by Neil Nisbet
Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company are entering their 20th year in the wide world of dance. The company's artistic director celebrates by being interviewed by Article19. We're sure the company are celebrating in other ways but we're happy to provide some party hats and a candle or two!
How have things changed over the last twenty years, since you founded the company?
Not being a person who ever made long term plans, when I started this I didn't think about what was going to happen next month let alone in twenty years time. It was never a plan to be around for so long and acquire dinosaur status (laughs). It's funny, you don't realise in-fact [that] you've been around for twenty years but obviously it feels tiring some times.
Also the [current] climate for the arts has changed so dramatically over the years. Actually, that's the hardest thing, it's a bit like being in a theatre and someone's shifted the scenery and you don't realise because it's never a dramatic shift. Suddenly you turn around and instead of standing in an orange sunset backdrop, [you're standing] in a storm backdrop.
What are the biggest changes you've noticed?
I don't know if people always feel this when they are beginning something [but] whenever you begin something there's a kind of energy in starting whatever it is. Beginning something always generates its own excitement and people buy into that because it's something new. You go through a phase where [moving] ahead seems a little bit [easier] because people are interested or excited because it's something they haven't seen before, or it's a new company or it's a new name.
I suppose when I started I felt that the arts was very [ideologically] driven because the philosophy that was underpinning the arts was [that] we couldn't hack it in the market and that's the reason [the] arts were funded. Unlike other activities it wasn't something that was ever going to survive in totally [free] market conditions and that's why the government put money in, to subsidise your existence. But slowly that shifted to a feeling that the arts were meant to compete in the market and it had to try and somehow adapt and sell itself like any other commodity.
There was a shift from artists being these people who were not or should not be interested in the market to artists being people who actually had to adopt the tried and tested methods of [normal] business models. That was a big challenge, what would actually happen to the way we saw ourselves, the way we made work? Sometimes I think that the best thing was pretend not to be an artist (laughs) but to be like a small business person. To put on that facade!
I don't think that model is totally successful because most people who are motivated to create are very different from people who are motivated to enter [into the business world]. Because we [the artists] are in it for different reasons [and] I think the way we measure how successful we are I'm sure is very different to the way a small business person would measure their success.
Then again one had this phase of the arts being agents of social change or social inclusion and [the arts] became part of a huge social work project. I think that has the feeling of being co-opted into another large project which is again is not hugely to do with making quality work.
It's all good and well if you make quality work but one has to justify oneself in this other arena. That's not necessarily a bad thing because I think that everything in the arts is going to be an agent of social change but social change within a frame work of financial accountability within a financial year is what's difficult. I think all artists want to be influential but not have that influence calculated between March 31st till the next March 31st.
I'm really happy that the public rhetoric is again coming back to quality in the arts or excellence in the arts and innovation. It's very difficult [though] to marry innovation to accountability or models of accountability that have come from other areas of life.
I think that's always [going to be] a problem. So I suppose one arrives at a stage where you get to be a little more philosophical about things. There will always be tension between art making and public funding and different governments try to solve it in different ways and one has to just survive and do what you do with integrity.
How do you personally judge your own success and how has that benchmark changed over the years?
There is more pressure and you have to work much harder to achieve the same level of satisfaction. For me personally it's whether or not I feel happy with that piece of work, whether it tours or it doesn't tour, whether there is an audience of one person and their dog or it's attracting millions, my happiness comes from my judgement of [whether or not] I got what I wanted in the end.
Being genetically pre-disposed to being dissatisfied most of the time I'm very rarely satisfied with what I do (laughs) but there are different degrees of satisfaction or dissatisfaction.
I'm also very aware, with choreography particularly, that it's not something you do on your own in an attic, you have to engage with other people. It's a social activity because from the minute you have an idea the first step is always engagement with another person, a dancer in my case.
So together with a dancer, in a studio, that's where ideas are generated so it's an incredibly sociable activity. So success has to do, for me, with the quality of the relationships that I make. The relationship I have with my dancers, their engagement with the work, what they bring to it, the satisfaction they get.
Of course, because one is funded by the Arts Council you also have to have a place for their measures of success which, at the moment, are about subsidy per head, how many people are seeing your work. This is difficult because the whole place of theatre in the 21st century, [in terms of] arts and leisure is very problematic and I think it's going through an immense period of change because people find other platforms to consume and enjoy artwork. So I think for people like myself who are interested in theatre spaces, [it's] a huge challenge.
Can you tell us about 'Faultline', the work you are currently touring?
Faultline was premiered last year and [the idea for it] came from the summer before when over the years, especially in London, one gets very caught up in the general sense of unease around Asian men particularly, Asian youth.
There was a summer when suddenly people thought someone was going to blow up planes by smuggling liquids in bottles [onboard], there was increased security and there were raids on houses in the East End [of London]. Generally, I felt very disturbed by the problematic nature of being Asian and young and male or actually Asian and male or even female. Some of my dancers, who look particularly Asian, young and male or dark skinned, I know there were random checks on them [by the Police], they were stopped in underground stations.
I think we all felt very disturbed and there was a lot of tension and anxiety around that issue so 'Faultline' really came from trying to grapple with the sense of anxiety.
At the same time I was reading the book called 'Londonstani' by a writer called Gautam Malkhani. It's about a gang of youths in Southall [in London]. It's a very surprising book, the ending is a total surprise and nothing at all like you would be led to believe by the beginning. The way he'd created his central character, structurally I found very interesting. 'Faultline' really came from those two events, reading that book and just seeing lots of news about suspected terrorism.
I felt that, especially in London, there was heightened anxiety about being in a city, being in a place with lots of different races and religions the whole kind of multi-cultural experiment, if you like, just seemed to be under threat. I felt there was an incredible amount of uncertainty between people. I think it's changing now but the last two years have been very disturbing psychologically.
When you hear ACE and politicians talking about cultural diversity do you think they are over simplifying things?
It's always the same area that people try to address. Sometimes it's called cultural diversity, it used to be called ethnic minority arts then it was called multi-culturalism. So I think the label changes but actually it's the same area that people are trying to address and it's about cohesion in British society.
I think the Arts Council should be concerned about it because I think governments are there to address these things but it's not just up to them. Just having a label doesn't mean it's going to solve the problem. I think there are two kinds of opinion.
Sometimes, if you put a ring around a particular group of people there is an argument to [be made] that it makes it even harder to integrate because you've just been highlighted. It's like someone has taken a big highlighter pen and written under your name "you are different". There was a time, a long time ago, people wanted us to say how many "ethnic minority" people attend [our] programme? What percentage of your audience is Indian [for example]?
I think that's actually not going to work very well in Britain any longer because it's very difficult to spot a young middle class Indian in the city because [they] don't walk around wearing silk saris and flowers in their hair anymore.
Sometimes these kinds of labels are used to contain people and I think that's where it's not good. I think in the arts it doesn't necessarily promote good quality work but perhaps it gives opportunities to those who otherwise might not have engaged in [creative] art. It's very difficult to test that [though]. There is such a diversity of opinion, the answer is, I don't know. I just know that the labels always keep changing.
On the ground things move faster and probably in a more sophisticated way than the people who write these labels probably realise. What I noticed in Britain, when I started doing workshops here twenty years ago, If I went to a school or anywhere and did a very stock, Indian classical dance phrase sometimes I would have people giggling or sometimes they [would say] "how? how do you do that with your fingers?". But now, wherever I go if you do that people aren't even commenting anymore because it's become so much more part and parcel of British urban life, it's not really a big issue.
So in some ways it's very counterproductive when policy makers still behave as if it is an issue and it needs some sort of special dispensation.
I'm a choreographer because I'm interested in dance, I'm not particularly interested in South Asian dance. I think in some ways that the cultural agenda becomes overblown and actually it stops people appreciating what you are trying to make them see which is actually dance making. I don't particularly want to put my work on stage and [have people say] "that's South Asian British dance", [because] that's counter productive.
What I'd like people to say is "that's dance, I like it!" or "I don't like it!" on the basis of is it good dance? Is it speaking to me? As opposed to "I better like it, it's South Asian dance, I should be supporting minority arts". I think that's really not very helpful at all to any artist because I don't think artists ever want to be accepted as examples of social categories they want to be accepted as examples of good [artists].
Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company will perform 'Faultline' at the Liverpool Empire Theatre on Saturday February 2nd then touring until the end of April with 'Faultline', 'City:Zen' and 'Exit no Exit'.