Pump priming for an ocean

5th May 1995 at 01:00
My brief from Women's Playhouse Trust was to create a piece for Muslim women. Muslimness has gone right into the background. I am lost in admiration for the remarkable school system that has produced these highly motivated young women. It's a wonderful advert for British education."

Choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh reflects on her residency working with 13 Year 7 and 8 students from Mulberry School for Girls, Tower Hamlets.

Situated in the poorest borough in Britain, with a 98 per cent Bengali Muslim intake, the building glows with creative activity. Head of Arts Hilary Ball has initiated numerous cross-cultural projects with professional artists challenging stereotyped images of young Asian women in Britain.

Talented dance students were chosen to work in Jeyasingh's inherited dance language, classical Bharatha Natyam, exploring aspects of Nritta (pure dance) through narrative culminating in Answers from the Ocean.

In the ancient Indian creation myth, the Asuras (forces of evil) and Devas (forces of good) churn the cosmic ocean in search of the nectar of immortality. Their efforts throw the ocean into turmoil, producing a choking poison that only divine intervention can neutralise. Jeyasingh says: "The gods are no better than the demons; both upset harmony - a good metaphor for life and ecology in general."

The group maintains momentum with lunchtime and after-school rehearsals. As designer Victoria Baker fits dancers into mustard brocade costumes, project co-ordinator Ginnie Wollaston leads a demanding warm-up. Slow stretching yields to the rhythmic slap of feet on ground, swift side leaps tracked by keenly focused eyes and fingers.

Against Barry Ganberg's impassioned music (vocals, percussion, jungle-inspired animal sounds), a stately procession breaks into turbulence, dancers slamming dangerously to the ground, knees bent low, fists punching: delicate martial artists. They arrive at peaceful resolution in sculptural, meditative poses, resting against each other in thoughtful stillness.

Using the classical mode's strong, clear line suggesting (good) formal discipline and looser, improvised movement conjuring (evil) impatience, Jeyasingh blends both elements. "Classical movement and public virtues for children always look imposed, which could stand as the morality of the piece. But free rein - doing something creative - often means doing whatever you want without context or form. A mixture of classical and free seems to be the ideal."

These young dancers have approached classical dance with commitment and intelligence, says Jeyasingh. The performance group will demonstrate similarities between Bharatha Natyam and classical ballet in a Royal Ballet residency.

The project acted as catalyst for establishing a regular dance technique class, performers enthusiastically teaching friends. The technique has been incorporated into a Year 7 set study course, using the game of Kabbadi as stimulus.

And in the hushed walls of Wapping Pumping Station, the oldest-running hydraulic power station in the world, restored as a performance space, Answers From the Ocean illuminates Women's Playhouse Trust's life in the city season.

Answers from the Ocean last performances tomorrow 4.30 and 8pm Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, Glamis RoadWapping Wall, London E1 (0171 379 9700).

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