By Kimberley Hardy
On the 20th December 2108, Love and Spice was performed for the Night Shift event at Thackray Medical Museum in collaboration with Sanctuary Suppers and the City of Sanctuary. The event was completely sold out and was enjoyed by funders, families from the City of Sanctuary, museum staff and the general public. Kimberley Hardy, one of the dancers in the performance, reflects on working with Balbir Singh and the experience of performing at the Thackray.
My journey with Love and Spice began in 2017 during BSDC’s double bill performance in December. My previous understanding of the piece and my connection with the repertoire was unsteady and my relationship with the movement was disjointed and detached. The choreography was heavily influenced by past artists styles, and with little time to understand the reasoning behind the movement, the journey of the concept and the role of the character I was playing, the performance felt, personally, slightly static. Time was needed for me to make my own stamp on the movement, make it representative of my own personality and to connect with the story. Over the past year I have led several workshops and created multiple movement pieces inspired by Love and Spice and with each new project I have increasingly told the story through my own voice. Establishing my own understanding of the narrative from my own point of view. Working with Kathak dancers and live musicians is incredibly inspiring and opens new realms of personal creativity, however performing alongside such artists can lead one to question how to fit within the jigsaw of work. Contemporary dance is an expression of oneself and to replicate another artists movement but draw upon your own style and understanding of the piece is a process that needs time. As an art form, contemporary dance is a personal exploration of each concept and attempting to step into another dancer’s personal creation can be detrimental to an artist’s performance and connection with the narrative.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned as a performer working with Balbir is that every artist working on a piece needs to be a creator. Every individual invited into the rehearsal space can adapt and personalise the concept, otherwise it denies the piece the best of that individual artist. The vision is respectfully the Artistic Director’s; however, the artist needs to go on their own personal journey with the work. Kathak and contemporary dance, although from the same world, have very different techniques and approaches. Contemporary dancers will react and respond, articulate and process work in different ways, therefore the work will always develop and evolve, it will never breathe the same in any performance. My personal character commands me to fit into others’ shoes who may have succeeded in the past. As I develop as a person and as an artist, I am learning that this approach will never benefit the work or myself. In order to connect, explore and understand a role, one must put their own unique energy into the process and make one’s own jigsaw piece.
Throughout December 2018, a mini adaptation of Love and Spice performed around elderly care homes and social groups around Leeds, a project funded by Leeds Inspired. These performances allowed for dancers to establish a rhythm of the work and understand what would work well and what could be adapted for the event on the 20th. Rehearsals for both Indian styled dancers and the narrator were held in October where a loose structure for an hour’s production was shaped. 2 full-day rehearsals were also scheduled within December. Both Erica Mulkern and I had a devising session at Thackray Museum so that I could teach the basic structure and content of the main contemporary section “Chicken Curry”. We also explored “Ganesh” movement and were prepared for the repertoire to be used if required. Erica and I were given one week to personally connect with the movement and introduce the movement to our bodies. On returning to Thackray on the day of the performance, it was evident that we had adapted the repertoire to represent our own stylistic qualities and were both confident with the content and the structure.
It was decided that no contemporary was needed within the Ganesh piece, however we were requested to refresh the movement from the digestion section. This segment originally was quite lengthy and explores the way the human body may react to different tastes. Balbir decided to shorten this section and asked us to create a small motif which could be repeated with a different taste influencing each repetition. Erica and I created 8 counts each so that the 16-count phrase was reflective of the two of us. The music was created around the movement and was a simple guitar solo. This section received positive feedback from other creators and some of the general public which I had conversations with following the performance. I believe the success of this section was that all artists involved were present throughout the whole journey of its development. It was new so there was a strong connection on stage as we all guided each other through and as the music was unfamiliar, we listened and reacted to it authentically.
Chicken Curry was also shortened, and the intention of the piece was explained. Balbir clearly identified the role of the dancers in this section and their connection with the chef. My understanding of the section is much clearer and the removal of some of the “spice collection” sections makes the piece flow easier and makes the narrative easier to follow. We also determined the characters of Erica and I, so that we were able to present the choreography with a suitable presence and connect with our role on stage.
There was a clear narration throughout the piece, which was not there in 2017. This clearly guided the audience through the story and helped those new to Indian dance to follow the movement a little more. The narration was also an enjoyable new dimension to the piece, it was someone else to connect with on stage and it helped tie all the art forms together and explain the purpose of each role.
Love and Spice worked well as a 60-minute production. Sections were taken out and shorted and this contributed to a succinct and effective narrative, easy for an audience member to follow. There were two main contemporary sections dispersed throughout the piece, however a short interlude was added within the nutmeg section. Erica and I created very small movements which had us travel in a line behind the Kathak dancers. It gave a different texture to the section yet didn’t detract from the main choreography in the forefront of the stage. This over time is a section which could have more reasoning behind it and a purpose for the inclusion of the two extra bodies on stage. Balbir directed this section clearly and explained how he wanted it abstract rather than literal and stated that for it to work the movement needed to be fluid and less pedestrian.
The singing vocals in the love duet between Abi and Kali lifted the piece and, in my opinion, helped to connect with the new audience members in the room. Song can be appreciated by all, whether one understands the lyrics or not. If the words are sung beautifully it can transform the entire atmosphere on stage. Within other BSDC performances there are often Indian vocals which are exquisite to listen to, however aren’t always engaging for the wider general public. Incorporating both the western singing and the Indian vocals it brought the two cultures and all the art forms together. The stage and the room felt united and electric. Perhaps a contemporary duet behind the Indian duet may have added nicely to the multi-faceted collaboration happening on stage. Similar movement but differences in the execution, tailored to each dance style. The section was around three minutes long and as an audience member I was transported somewhere else as I listened and watched the work unfold. This section, to me, is the identity of BSDC working to its full capacity.
The performance space was changed from the original location, as there were more audience members attending than originally anticipated. The room was a decent size and offered an intimate setting for an intimate performance. Love & Spice works favourably in smaller settings, especially with a narrator. The repertoire and the story don’t demand a big stage and work well performed in a round or in a standard seating set-up. The chef was able to cook on stage and deliver his choreography as long as all safety precautions were followed. The lighting worked well, and the room was capable of a full black-out when needed.
The museum lends itself well to the piece and it is evident that educational delivery would work suitably within the collaboration. The topic themes in Love and Spice are reflected in the different exhibitions around the museum and the performance almost worked as a visual extension of the museum itself.
Pop-up interventions were arranged around the different exhibitions of Thackray museum. The contemporary dancers were situated in the x-ray lab, an Odissi dancer within the Apothecary, a Kathak dancer in the maternity ward and the narrator guided a group tour around the lower level of the museum. The pop-up experiences were a hit with audience members and presented the collaboration between both organisations clearly. The visual movement of the artists helped to deepen the understanding of the work on display within the venue.
The x-ray dancers demonstrated the bones and the art of choreography using a simple approach which was enjoyed by passers-by. As a participatory element, children were invited to select a bone, insert it onto the x-ray screen, vocalise the bone and the dancer would isolate and move the chosen body part. This type of learning is accessible for all types of learners as they can either learn through the physical selection of the image or by the observation and participation of moving the body part.
The maternity ward allowed for the Kathak dancer to demonstrate the story of baby Krishna. This offered onlookers an insight into the performance piece whilst also dissecting this section so that it was clearer to understand during the production.
The apothecary was an ideal setting for Love and Spice as many of the artefacts had labels of spices written upon them. If the objects on display weren’t so fragile, this room would have been a perfect performance space. Unfortunately, the pots rattled precariously and was unsuitable for a dance performance.
The guided tour led by the narrator introduced audience members to BSDC and invited them to look at the museum creatively and broke down barriers of reservation before leading the public upstairs to participate in the other pop-up events.
It would have been an interesting concept to have a musical pop-up, perhaps in the Hannah Dyson exhibition, or in the old street walk-throughs. Many people connect with music before they do with movement and dance, so this may have engaged people well.
The pop-ups were a fun and interesting way to introduce the general public to the museum and to BSDC, in an inviting and accessible manner. Audiences were ale to engage with pop-ups they were interested in and observe from a distance those that they were unsure of. A feedback form may have been a useful resource to have to hand at each experience, it would have given insight into what immediately engages, and which elements were too intrusive or abstract for some.
I was performing in the x-ray lab and every audience member observed for at least 3 minutes, with the majority watching for around 5 minutes and a select few for 8 minutes.
Thackray Medical Museum has a breadth of accessible exhibitions which would flow nicely with BSDC repertoire. Love and Spice worked well, tying in well with the apothecary and the x-ray lab. Themes from The Strategists would also support the musculoskeletal exhibitions found within the museum.
The pop-ups were beneficial as research for how children engaged with the work and how concepts could be developed within other departments of the museum. The children who participated in the x-ray lab quickly retained the information given to them and were enthusiastic about how they had control over Erica’s movements and were able to choreograph short movement phrases which she was then able to replay back for them. This idea may be a good introductory workshop so that schools, the museum and the children can see how both organisations are able to deliver an informative and exciting project.
By being able to rehearse the work within the performance venue it allowed for the artists to directly see the space they would have available whilst devising, seek inspiration from the venue immediately and develop relationships between Thackray staff. Team members would watch brief glimpses of the rehearsals and ask questions to the artists which, I believe, gave some sense of belonging to those who would be promoting and facilitating the event. Multiple conversations and demonstrations to the Thackray educational staff also allowed for them to begin thinking of concepts they would like to explore with BSDC and the style in which BSDC work.
Duetting with Erica was a different experience than when I was duetting with Beth in 2017, both in the development process and within the performance.
Balbir is able to read situations before they arise and directed Erica and I in a positive and effective direction. We were given time to establish our own characters in our relationship and build a working rapport. The entire performance felt harmonious and unified, the musicians were working with the dancers and the dancers were respectful of the musicians. The narrator was guided by Balbir yet allowed to steer the content and have it reflective of her as an individual. Dancers were given concise instruction and direction so that we understood the intention of each different section and transitions were structured so that the piece was fluid and all artists were engaging with one another throughout.
Balbir has a clear vision yet can break down his ideas for each individual artist. He gives them the tools that they personally need to be the best that they can be. He captains the process from the side-lines, allowing artists to decipher his concept for themselves but then structures and adapts the work to make the content clearer, more exciting, more engaging or more collaborative.
Balbir managed people’s emotions in a way that protected the unity of all collaborators. He read situations early and gave people what they needed to be constructive yet comfortable throughout the process.
The final performance, as a performer, felt like an intimate sharing between friends. A supportive, harmonious collective project delivered by passionate creators. The intimate setting was reflective of the work and was a safe space for people new to the arts to be introduced to a cross-art form performance piece. The pop-up interventions worked well as an introduction, the meal was a chance for audience members to break down barriers and develop new connections and the performance was an opportunity to show how art can bring people from such different walks of life together. The speeches from both BSDC, Thackray and funders allowed for the audience to understand the project clearer and will hopefully be the production that entices some audience members to watch and participate in the arts again in the future.
Love and Spice has something for everyone. The intricacies of Kathak and Odissi, beautiful western and Indian vocals, dynamic contemporary dance and original live musicians, all whilst watching a chef cook on stage. There are elements of humour, poignant moments for reflection, unique concepts, giant fire flames and a beautiful narrative which flows seamlessly throughout the piece. Audiences new to the arts and Indian dance are guided through the story yet have moments of familiarity that they can connect with. It’s a feast for all senses and in moments where one doesn’t personally connect with one element, there’s always something else to engage with such as the chef, the musicians or the narrator. I have been an audience member for Love and Spice multiple times and have had various conversations with those who have enjoyed it. Love and Spice is a pinnacle piece of theatre which enriches audiences through an array of art forms from different cultures and passions. It demonstrates the vast wealth of inspiration there is in the world and that sources of creativity can be seen in the most unexpected places. Everyone can identify with food and the journey on which food can take us. The stories of the Indian Gods offer moments for reflection, appreciation and wonder. The stories are told in ways accessible for all, there are multiple ways to connect with the stories and the characters and if there isn’t then the beautiful costumes and music are a feast for the senses alone.
Love and Spice can be the first performance piece you see or your one hundredth, however it’s diversity, its originality and its heart is like no other. It is a journey into love, life, curiosity, passion and spice without ever needing to leave your seat.