Build with the new & break from the old – Shobana Jeyasingh Dance’s Fluid Boundaries

Words by Katie Hagan

The value of interdisciplinary, site-specific, community-led dance performances can never be stressed enough. For some they provide an escape, opening-up a space for people to see it in ways never done before. For others they teach and educate, cultivating dialogues between people from different walks of life that may never cross paths in their everyday lives. 

Either way, they have the potential to foster change in ways very separately to more conventional, proscenium-arch performances. 

Part of the global London Festival of ArchitectureFluid Boundariesa collaborative work developed by Shobana Jeyasingh Dance and not-for-profit architecture practice, ft’work, uses dance as the vehicle to break cultural, social and spatial boundaries.  

With the first performance in Aldgate Square, the second and final performance took place in the recently regenerated Guy’s Courtyard, a new space amalgamating traditional and modern design.  

Guy’s Courtyard’s ‘regency-inspired’, almost regal large square was Fluid Boundaries’ performance space. Fluid Boundaries’ participants comprised school children, with the second performance danced by students from Mulberry School for Girls, which Shobana Jeyasingh is a patron of. Michelle Obama famously visited the school to launch her Let Girls Learn UK campaign, an initiative championing equality and driving for better access to education for young girls from different backgrounds. 

The performance itself was a delight. To begin, the audience are enticed by the gentle, humming beats of a processional drum, informing us that something special is to happen before our very eyes. As the drumming grew stronger, the girls entered, claiming the entire Guy’s Courtyard to begin their dance. 

Through a careful blend of contemporary dance and Bharatanatyam — Jeyasingh’s specialty — the girls used their bodies to articulate their presence. Whether they were dancing to explore their heritage, personal histories or for sheer fun, it was clear they did it with complete conviction and purpose. 

Shobaha Jeyasingh’s company members had worked plenty of running into the choreography, an understated yet completely effective way to highlight uncharted freedom. And for the passers-by that were perhaps not so familiar with either contemporary or Bharatanatyam, running created a shared movement understanding to invite trepid audience members into the space. 

Fluid Boundaries, an outdoor dance performance created by Shobana Jeyasingh Dance with architecture practice ft’work for the London Festival of Architecture at Guy’s Courtyard, King’s College London. Choreographers: Noora Kela, Maxine Phillips. Musician Nao Masuda. Participants: Students from Mulberry School for Girls, Tower Hamlets. 14 June 2019. Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou.

Clare Richards, Founder and Director of ft’work, noted that every element was attended to, from the choreography, to where the girls would be positioned, to the acoustics. She explained to me that she wanted The Shard’s workmen soaring up in the sky to hear the drums. 

Meticulous thought was clearly put into creating different layers. London’s architectural history is juxtaposed against the personal narratives of the girl’s performing plus the audience and the role they have to play. 

What I shall take away with me, however, is the empowerment the young girls from Mulberry experienced dancing in such a space. 

Claiming such a prestigious part of London and making it your own is a powerful statement, especially when the question fixed at the core of Fluid Boundaries debates accessibility — both in terms of space and education. And that is why this performance was so moving; because it enabled the girls to take-over a space, to act on their artistic impulses; to use dance to unite people within a city that has gained notoriety for its insouciance. And to see such liberation truly put a smile on my face and warmed my heart. 

Although Fluid Boundaries is as much to do with breaking boundaries — the theme of this year’s festival — it is also about creating dialogues with different people from different communities. It is as much about building the new as it is breaking from the old.

For more information on Shobana Jeyasingh Dance see here.

London Festival of Architecture runs until 30th June 2019. See here for the programme.

Images by Foteini Christofilopoulou