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Daring and compelling
Animated, Summer 1998. Darshan Singh Bhuller in conversation with Emma Manning
Quite why so few Indian dancers venture outside the parameters of their own traditional dance forms is open to debate, but one brilliant exception is Darshan Singh Bhuller. Born in the Punjab in northern India, Bhuller started to dance at the pioneering Harehills Middle School in Leeds after his family emigrated to England. He subsequently joined the London Contemporary Dance School at 15, and then the now defunct London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT).

Talking in his north London home which he shares with his wife, the former dancer Sallie Estep, and their two gymnast daughters, Bhuller cites his LCDT years, during which he danced in dozens of pieces and choreographed one new work every year, as the golden era of his career. An injury, which failed to respond to a string of operations, cruelly forced his premature retirement as a dancer, and yet he still has the generosity to look at the offending foot with a good humoured exasperation rather than any chip-on-the-shoulder malice.

But whilst one harbours memories of his outstanding performances in Christopher Bruce's Rooster, or in his own choreography, Interlock, Bhuller's talents are not solely terpsichorean. Early on in his career, his creative prowess as a film maker was exposed in BBC Two's transmission of his poignant work, The Fall, and film has continually been an integral strand in his working life. However, his latest piece, Planted Seeds, fuelled by a research trip to Bosnia, was crafted for the stage and is arguably his most daring and compelling work to date. If I stick my neck out, I'd say that it is the most riveting piece of dance theatre I have seen in the last year. But the atrocities of war and rape are not the most conducive dance material, especially when their topicality is passionately ripe. Didn't he consider it a bit dangerous to take on board such an emotionally charged contemporary theme?

"I tend not to. I only think about it afterwards. I actually thought about it two days before we premiered it, but before that I just steamrolled through. It's not the most attractive subject matter, but it's something I wanted to express and it's important to me. When I did a piece about South Africa for LCDT, even then people were saying - are you sure you want to do political theatre? - and I just said, well it's the way I've been brought up, through education and expression. And if it's political, it is, and I'm up front about it. Political issues are complicated and hard to do, and with Planted Seeds I still kind of feel that there are bits of it which I haven't explored enough. But the subject matter in itself does not scare me."

Bhuller was, in part, drawn to the Bosnian theme because he finds stark parallels in it with his own family roots, notably the division of India and Pakistan in 1947. So what are his views on the current nuclear power crisis in those countries? "Well my first reaction is do they have to go on this bandwagon? I'm completely against nuclear weapons. But my reaction to the assumption held by the West that it can play policeman always makes me smile, because we've all got nuclear weapons and are we going to be sanctioned by somebody else? I find it quite patronising."

Does he ever see himself returning to the Punjab and living on a farm? "No - I used to, but I'm too westernised now I guess. But I still go there now and again, and I enjoy my relatives and the break. I slip back into that lifestyle - it's nice and slow - and the weather and the food. But I can't see myself moving there. I'd like to work there but nobody has offered me anything there so..."

Why does he think that so few Indian dancers get involved in western dance forms? "Well there were quite a few of us who came out of the Leeds (Harehills) set up, but otherwise I have no idea. Perhaps it's to do with how many parents are open enough to let their children dance. My parents questioned me - are you sure you want to do this? - but as a kid, I wanted to do what everyone else wanted to do. Now, being a parent, I can see it from their point of view. You want to make sure that your children are going to survive. Asian values are very conservative, and parents want to make sure that their children go into a profession that is going to pay the mortgage, and may be they see dance theatre as being a little unstable. What is his greatest inspiration as a choreographer? "Hmm...," he pauses, "I have never thought," and laughs." Should I? Greatest inspiration? That's a heavy duty question." After more guffaws I finally manage to pin him down. "OK, for a piece, it always starts with an idea. Sometimes, in the past, I found certain pieces of music very attractive, and thought, let's just go along with the music. But usually, I like to work from an idea, whether it's in an abstract form or in a narrative. There has to be something. I find it quite hard just to do movement for movement's sake to a nice bit of music. Because, about half way through I start questioning myself why am I doing this? Am I happy? Am I sad? So there has to be the idea. I think, too, since making short films it has made me think more in the terms of story boarding a piece, and making sure that other people can understand what you're doing as well. Then comes the hardest part, to make the story physical."

Do you go to many dance performances? "I went to New York recently and saw a lot of companies. Some I enjoyed, and some I just thought, my god, you could do anything I guess in modern dance - as the scope should be there to do that but there is no clarity sometimes. I would actually rather go and see a bad movie, and analyse it, than a mediocre piece of dance where I just feel frustrated. If you are going to choreograph, you must have something to say. It has to be specific about something, or about yourself. Otherwise, to me, it's showing. I'd rather not choreograph endless work, because I don't have that many ideas. I'll get perhaps one good idea in a year, and I'd rather focus on that than churn out three or four small works."

When did you first become involved in films? "Well I studied at High School, but it was really when a friend of ours - I don't know if you saw the big painting downstairs, but it's by Graham Deane. He's a painter and he's also a film maker. We collaborated on a film, Breaking The Surface, and it went well and we sold it to Channel Four. Then, a bit later, I stopped collaborating and started to direct my own stuff. The last project I did - apart from the pop videos - was a documentary on Jane Dudley's Harmonica Breakdown which was choreographed in 1938. I found that fascinating, and also to do a documentary and have to deal with words and letting her tell her story. I mean the piece is only three and a half minutes long, and it made a 15 minute documentary. For me, directing and being behind a camera is just as enjoyable as when I was flapping around on stage. I get a real sense of achievement because there is so much that you have to deal with and to delegate certain things. Then people come back to you and help you out. I mean I don't know how to do everything. The logistics of film fascinate me because you never know quite how it's going to turn out. With dance you make up the steps and you see it immediately, but with film you shoot it, there's post production, and you edit it before you actually get to see it."

Emma Manning, Editor, Dance Europe. Contact +44 (0)20 8985 7767.

Planted Seeds, a 90-minute piece of dance theatre was performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 16-17 September. It was created as part of an Arts Council of England Research and Development Award with the support of the Robin Howard Foundation.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001