One of Britain's top choreographers believes research is a vital part of creativity
There's nothing decorous about the flowers in Shobana Jeyasingh's 2013 work, Strange Blooms: dancers coil, bend and thrust upwards, bathed in fluorescent light. Gabriel Prokofiev's score buzzes insistently, insect-like. "You never know what to expect from Shobana Jeyasingh," wrote the Observer's dance critic when the piece was premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. You certainly might not expect that Strange Blooms is the latest work that Jeyasingh, a research associate at Middlesex University and celebrated choreographer, has used to inspire schoolchildren to dance.
Strange Blooms is based on the growth of plants, and Jeyasingh and her team have tailored their workshops for primary and secondary school pupils so that a number of different experiences can act as a starting-point: Ted Hughes' poem Fern, speeded-up film footage of plants breaking through concrete in Hong Kong, or a visit to a garden or greenhouse. Students use these to spark off ideas and choreograph their own piece. "My choreography comes from research," says Jeyasingh. As part of her input into the MA teaching programme at Middlesex, she holds seminars on the topic of creativity.
Her company, Shobana Jeyasingh Dance, recently spent a week at Mulberry School for Girls, a comprehensive in Tower Hamlets with a very high proportion of pupils of Bangladeshi origin and children from deprived backgrounds. The response to the Strange Blooms workshop was enthusiastic. "I was thinking we'd have to make big pieces of dance and we'd probably get taught the dance moves and perform, but it had nothing to do with that," one Year 10 girl wrote of the workshop. "At the start, I would not have thought of myself as being creative. But after a week, I have more confidence," wrote another.
Jeyasingh's 2007 work Faultline is already part of the GCSE Dance syllabus. "Faultline draws its inspiration from young Asians in Britain, and the unease that followed the London bombings. When people watch it they feel they recognize themselves," she explains. "It was also influenced by the extremely stylized portraits of Asian youth in Gautam Malkani's novel Londonstani: particularly of young male posturing." What makes it particularly striking is that focus on the male experience. "In the dance work when I bring the women in I myself wonder whether they are going to survive," says Jeyasingh. "But you realize that they can deliver their own punches."
She has a knack, rare in Britain, for finding ways to engage boys in dance. At one workshop, she recalls, they said they all wanted to be footballers. "So I decided to make dances for them based on football – as well as introducing them to shape, line, dynamic. I had their full attention, and actually they were brilliant."
Jeyasingh is particularly proud of her company's tour of India in 2010, and the resulting website, Home Meets Home. Middlesex funded an academic to document the company's progress and the responses her pieces received - some enthralled, some taken aback by the lack of "Indianness" in a choreographer who was born in Chennai.
For Jeyasingh, the theatre is only one of many places where dance can be created and performed. "All dance reaches out to the community, whether it be through a theatre performance or a school workshop," she says. Her company's outreach and participation programmes like Inspiring Women and Making Strides are designed to take dance experience outside conventional venues, and engage people who may not go to the theatre or take a dance workshop. Her site-specific and public work, which has included productions in Somerset House fountains and for the pews of historic churches, attract audiences of all ages. "That's something that I'd be happy to do more of," she says. "Having said that, we need a particular type of pew!"