IF Oxford Science & Ideas Festival
Bonn Square, Oxford
17 October 2018
Reviewed by Gopa Roy
Unkindest Cut is an intense and moving experience that takes place within the unconventional setting (for bharatanatyam) of a shipping container. The audience sits on benches against three sides, close to the performance and to one other. Light rods hang from the ceiling, lighting up and changing colour as the performance proceeds, with the dancer moving between and interacting with them. During one section a film is projected on the back wall, of the dancer’s face performing abhinaya (the expressive element of the classical dance), while the dancer herself crouches in the darkened space, rocking back and forth. The work communicates, by means of the controlled and purposeful physicality of the movement, together with the lights, soundscape and projected film, the condition of someone in mental distress.
The title refers both to damaging government policies and to self-harm. (Background information tells us that cases of self-harm in girls aged from thirteen to sixteen have risen by 68% since 2011.) However policies and politics remain outside the box, to be thought about or discussed or acted upon in relation to the experience presented inside, as no solution or resolution is offered within the piece. The performance represents the experience of living through psychological pain while life goes on outside; on this occasion, we could hear the world in the form of rather raucous noises in an Oxford square. One is aware of it, but, absorbed in the interior, not connected with the rest of life.
The lights are both a physical element in the space and symbolic. The dancer moves carefully between them, appearing to caress them at times, but without touching them, both controlled and fearful. When the lights turn red, the symbolism is clear and shocking, as the gestures and the words describe self-harm, almost in terms of its artistry. The voice we hear speaks of gossamer and delicate lines. Electrical sounds, the sounds of circuitry, suggest the activity of the brain. White light and shadows cross the figure at the end, as they do at the beginning – it is not a linear narrative, rather an expression of a state.
Bharatanatyam as a form underpins the piece: in the gestures, in the abhinaya, even in the presence of the other artist with whom the dancer interacts on the floor – audio-visual artist Matthew Olden – operating the lighting, sound and film in the corner. It is, aesthetically, a carefully constructed, intelligent and coherent work of art.
Unkindest Cut is part of a larger project on the issue of the growing crisis in young people’s mental health. Dancer, choreographer and educator Suba Subramaniam has created the work in consultation with child and adolescent psychiatrist Partha Banerjea (South London and Maudsley Adolescent Mental Health Services). Performances are preceded by a series of dance workshops for young people, exploring what it is like to be a young person in the world today. Voices from discussions that take place form part of the soundscape of the installation – voices which are not often heard, or listened to, as school days do not provide the time, and the young people do not yet have a vote. The workshops, bharatanatyam-based, give young people an opportunity to be free, creative and expressive with their bodies. During the post-show discussion, Suba told us of girls who stated at the start of a workshop that they would not remove their shoes or dance, but who completed the session doing both, having created a beautiful duet.
Dance helps communicate; and if the first step to progress is understanding, Unkindest Cut might be a first step for many.
Unkindest Cut was conceived and choreographed by Subathra Subramaniam. The piece is a collaboration with audio visual artists, Kathy Hinde and Matthew Olden and lighting designer, Aideen Malone, with dramaturgy by Chris Fogg.
UK Science Festivals Tour
To 21 OCTOBER 2018
26-28 OCTOBER 2018
SWANSEA SCIENCE FESTIVAL
8 NOVEMBER 2018
16 FEBRUARY 2019
11-24 MARCH 2019