Not Today’s Yesterday
London, The Place
2 October 2018
You never know quite what you might get from Seeta Patel. It could be anything from a formal Bharatanatyam performance in traditional costume to something much more contemporary. Earlier this year it was a collaboration with Gandini Juggling which explored the relationships between the rhythms of Indian dance and bouncing balls. This time for Not Today’s Yesterday Patel has collaborated with Australian choreographer Lina Limosani.
Together they decided to use the medium of a fairy tale to explore how history gets retold from the viewpoint of the victors. It’s a solo performance from Patel, running at just under an hour. There’s an extensive voiceover narrative and perhaps a little less dancing than you might expect. The story concerns an Eden-like land which is visited by curious strangers: you know this is going to end badly, and it does. There’s a long slow build up before the conflict and bitterness of the conclusion. There’s real anger here about the effects of colonial exploitation which some of the audience clearly responded to strongly.
Patel’s dancing fluidity blends the influences of Bharatanatyam and more contemporary movement. Her opening solo, standing in front of a mirrored screen, begins with elaborate curls of the arm and wrist, the motion rippling through the body, and then continues to morph into something more clockwork and angular, almost robotic. For just a second or two it recalled the robot woman in Metropolis.
But after the narration starts, there’s an uneven quality to the work. Not all the material feels fully integrated into the scheme. For example, the set includes small shiny geometric panels which are frequently rearranged by the performer. At one point these effectively suggest the sails of a fleet heading for land, but only briefly. In general, the panels and other props don’t quite seem to merit the attention spent on them, and some of the first half felt quite slow moving. Some of the text is charming (a land with rivers of chocolate!), but it can stray into more whimsical territory.
There are flashes where things do come together very effectively. Patel’s voice describes the beauties of land and her delicate hands become the butterflies in the forest or silvery fish in the seas of the text. The soundscape supports this section well, with echoing cries of birds.
The most effective theatrical moment oddly enough comes when the whitewashing of history theme is taken quite literally. A pot of white paint is poured down a translucent screen, and Patel uses her body to wipe it into a messy barrier leaving just a spot to peer through. Now we see her movements lit from an angle, projected onto the whiteness of the screen. The effect has transmogrified her shadow into a hideous twisted monster with long threatening claws that menace. This illustrates neatly and without words how easy it is to alter the perception of what is really there: those on the losing side are easily made monstrous and ugly.
The lighting design that enables this striking image is by Guy Hoare, redone here by Barnaby Booth. Patel has perhaps been less fortunate in her costume designer. Lydia Cawson for the final moments clads her in something like a 16th-century farthingale and ruff made out of clear plastic material which doesn’t look easy to dance in. Wearing it, Patel stomps and shrieks the words of the new ruling class to a cacophonous background of snippets of speeches from western leaders. It’s a disquieting and downbeat ending.
This is obviously a sincere and deeply felt attempt to show us how history gets rewritten to demonise some and exalt others. There are panel discussions after each show to explore the theme further. Despite a committed performance Not Today’s Yesterday doesn’t entirely gel, but there are certainly thoughtful moments that illuminate its theme with ingenuity and style.