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Material Men/Strange Blooms at the Southbank Centre review – ‘distilled intensity’

Material Men at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre. Photo: Chris Nash Material Men at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre. Photo: Chris Nash
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Shobana Jeyasingh’s latest work, Material Men, is a far from simple duet. Following her rich and complex meditation on La Bayadere earlier this year, she has tightened her focus on a pair of Asian dancers first seen wrapped together in an orange shawl. Moving as one creature with two heads, they seem like conjoined twins until the unwrapping and rewrapping begins to display signs of bondage and enslavement. As they move through a line of upright rods representing either trees or prison bars they disentangle themselves and trade off each other’s individual dance characteristics.

One is Bharatanatyam-based, upright and imperious, his hands furling and unfurling with precise eloquence; the other is all morphing muscularity, rooted in street dance as if trying to remould his body from the inside out. An on-stage string quartet alternates with recorded electronic music as they move from enmity to empathy, ultimately performing the same ritualised movement in a sequence of integrated communion.

A similarly distilled intensity is evident in the opening piece, Strange Blooms, made two years earlier, in which eight dancers jerk and jolt through a series of sequences inspired by the secret movements of plants. Against a screen of simple but effective graphics and a soundtrack of electronic music that sometimes suggests an avalanche in an echo chamber or the buzzing of a really pissed-off insect, the dancers engage in exotic gymnastics. There is a hint of Wayne McGregor in the jutting angularity and electrified extensions, but the sudden surprising lifts and unsettling accelerations, like a film playing at the wrong speed, write Jeyasingh’s signature in bright ink.

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Jeyasingh's latest work expresses the conundrum of two men divided by the same culture