Words by Stella Rousham.
It’s a warm and gentle Monday evening in May. The sun is just beginning to set in the horizon, sending shimmering soft beams of gold and pink into the sky. It’s a horizon of the future. A horizon of hope and new beginnings. As I log into Zoom, I am greeted by three beaming faces – Tulani Kayani-Skeef, Aishani Gosh and Mithun Gill – huddled together around the computer screen.
Independent dance artists in their own right, I caught up with the trio as they embark on their first co-created piece, You With U which debuted at Resolution, The Place on Tuesday 30th May 2023. Hearing their candid reflections on the research and creation of the work, I was immediately struck by the genuine care, respect and inspiration they nurture from one another. From finishing each-other’s sentences to the soft exchanges of smiles and laughter between them, the trio radiate a beautiful synchrony which permeates all aspects of their work. You with U is not just a dance piece; it is an on-going, deeply personal and poetic journey for an authentic self-identity amidst world of homogenizing social forces – be that social media, colonially entrenched beauty standards and even the rigid categories of different dance styles themselves.
Having known of or worked with one another through various stages of their training and freelance work, the three dancers illuminate how the collaboration emerged naturally through an ‘inkling’ – as Aishani put it – an organic harmony in their movement quality and mutual desire to create without the pressure and isolation that can come from being an emerging independent choreographer. Tulani shares that “it felt good to just have each other to support one another in this process.”
The title, You with U, captures the fundamental ideas and questions behind the piece, as Mithun proposes “it’s really about sitting with yourself and really figuring out who you are.” Through a range of creative research and development tasks – from writing self-love letters and poetry, to dissecting Google images of Eurocentric beauty standards – Mithun elaborates how the work started as an examination of filters and “how social media can alter our perception of ourselves.” The desire to examine the homogenizing forces of social media, was sparked primarily by their individual lived experiences, perspectives and insecurities. As Aishani details: “It’s an identity piece. Identity as people of color and how that story can be navigated. Because we are people of color, we can only really speak of our experiences. From there, it became kind of a self-healing, identity narrative that has no ending.”
Whilst You With U is mosaic crafted through the very particular biographies, stories and lived experiences brought forth by the three dancers as individuals, it also appeals to wider structures and social processes. As Mithun explains: “although initially [the piece] is about filters, we also wanted to look at social conditioning on a bigger scale. Because actually, anyone can feel repressed, oppressed or restricted in any kind of form.” The work thus is also an exploration into more universal traits of human nature, as Tulani remarks: “it’s bigger than us.”
Because actually, anyone can feel repressed, oppressed or restricted in any kind of form.
You with U further offers a critical, yet beautifully artistic and poetic perspective on the continual negotiations of locating one’s authentic movement and identity as a dancer specifically. Between them, the three have trained in a plethora techniques including but not limited to: Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Ballet and Contemporary. Classical technique and training, in particular, is recognised as at once enabling and confining. As Tulani expresses, “the piece is really about being ourselves. Being authentic. So why would we stick to just being ‘Kathak’ or ‘Contemporary’. We’re just not going to do that.” Thus You With U is not just an exploration into the confines of social conditioning; the choreography within it transcends the rigidly codified boundaries of dance genres and styles. As Aishani elaborates: “in the beginning we do have a lot of Bharatnatyam and Kathak; we stay within our forms. From then, we do movement that comes to us naturally […] I don’t always feel a need to categorise it into a form […] As dance artists, you are often pigeon-holed or boxed into a specific style.”
In seeking to resist being ‘boxed into a specific style’, the trio equally express a clear mastery of their respective training. Aishani stresses that: “If we are doing Kathak or Bharatnatyam, it’s within the form and it’s correct […] Our training is our training and we want to do justice to a classical form.” One way that the group have maintained the integrity of classical Indian (specifically Kathak and Bharatnatyam) dance forms, is through the process of storytelling. As Tulani explains: “We’re all from classical Indian dance styles. We’re very much storytellers[…]We don’t want it to be always too abstract and too contemporary. We want to stay true to our styles in that way.” It is through seeking to ‘do justice to a classical form’ whilst also searching for their authentic movement, that the groups’ creativity shines through.
Care and artistry are at the heart of this choreographic process, as Mithun highlights how they were cautious to not “just put Kathak or Bharatnatyam in for the sake of it. It had to make sense and it had to feel organic,” paying particular attention to how the movement would be read by audiences.
The care and artistry with which the trio applied to the choreography, holds deeper roots in their community, both artistic and familial. Whilst a brilliant platform for emerging choreography, the challenge of having to self-finance can be a barrier for many independent dance artists at Resolution festival. As Tulani explains, it is through their attempt to be ‘resourceful’ that she, for the first time, has been collaborating with her dad, multi-instrumentalist, Eugene Skeef, to compose and direct an original musical accompaniment.
As well as using tracks by artist-musician, Shammi Pithia, the group share how the musical collaboration has instigated a new way of composing and choreographing alike. Absent from the studio, the group have relied on sending videos and “very specific instructions” to Eugene who then translates this into an “amazing track.” Tulani reflects how this way of working is different to her experiences in typical Kathak creation processes, where “we create based on the music that already exists as a piece.” This highly responsive and dynamic approach to creation extends beyond the music, as the trio further express their sincere gratitude at the generosity and open-ness of their wider dance network. In exchange for running classes and workshops, they’ve been able to use studio space from their Guru, Sujata Banerjee, as well as at The Place and Bedford University. The trio, then, have not just choreographed a piece of work, in making You with U, the dancers have built, in Tulani’s words, a “real collective community.”
You with U, as Mithun explains, takes audiences on a “journey […] a whole journey of questioning, understanding and coming back to your authentic self.” Through bravely sharing their own embodied stories and journey of self-discovery on stage, Tulani hopes that the piece will also “reflect you and every other person in the world.” For Aishani, “even if the audience don’t go away with the final meaning of the piece, even if they have a snippet of an emotion or that snippet has made them think about their own life, I think that’s a success for us as a group.”
Looking back through the window at the golden sun setting, I am excited about the bright future that lays on the horizon for this trio, as their debut at The Place last Tuesday is just the start of a bold and innovative choreographic journey.
Follow the trio on Instagram to keep up to date on their future performances and projects as a group and as independent dance artists: @_aishanigosh @mithun.gill @tulani_
Cast/Credits of ‘You with U’
Dancers and co-creators: Aishani Ghosh, Mithun Gill & Tulani Kayani-Skeef
Composer & music sequencer: @eugeneskeef
Composer: @shammipithia Vocals and Bansuri: Varijashree Venugopal
Photography/BTS footage: Salifah Kayani-Skeef
Lead image edit: Jacek Rebkowski @jacolrebol
Mentor: Subathra Subramaniam
In kind studio space: @sujatabanerjeedancecompany@theplacelondon @uniofbeds @theplacebedford