Artist Spotlight: Shane Shambhu

This November Live & Local are welcoming Shane Shambhu to Warwick for a special performance of his autobiographical show, Confessions of a Cockney Temple Dancer. Produced in association with the Rural Touring Dance Initiative, it’s one-part comedic monologue/ one-part Indian dance-theatre and wholly brilliant. To get a flavour of the event, we spoke to Shane about the history of Bharatanatyam, discovering dance at a young age and what it means to be British in 2018.

‘I fell in love with dancing… It was like I was connecting with myself and to something much larger than me at the same time…’

First things first, audience members might not be familiar with Bharatanatyam dance. It’s a South-Indian classical dance form and is highly physical. It uses geometric shapes, rhythm and space to create dynamic movement phases; Bharatanatyam also incorporates a strong element of storytelling and this is mainly performed through mime, facial expression and poetry to share mythological stories.

Storytelling is a vital ingredient and yet the narratives are typically centred around traditional Indian folklore so might be a little hard to grasp for anyone unacquainted with the history. As Shane says, ‘If I started to tell you a story from a culture you were unfamiliar with using sign-language, it wouldn’t be very long before you started to think, ‘hang on a second, I’m not quite sure what’s going on.’’ That’s what makes Confessions such a fantastic performance for those who aren’t familiar with the original tales or even dance itself. Shane takes the traditional mode of storytelling and applies it to gestures and geographical contexts that will be familiar with audiences in Britain today.

Shane Shambhu performing Bharatanatyam dance.

As a self-proclaimed ‘fat kid’ from East Ham, what was it about this physical, mythical artform that appealed to Shane? ‘I fell in love with dancing and it is hard to describe the feeling of what exactly appealed to me at that young age. It was like I was connecting with myself and to something much larger than me at the same time, where my attention and focus was completely absorbed and till this day I still don’t know what that actually is.’ It’s particularly intriguing given that no one else in the family was a dancer, let alone a performer. Both of Shane’s parents were labourers; his dad driving a fork-lift, his mum on the assembly line at the Ford Dagenham Plant. This isn’t to say they weren’t supportive – much of the video footage used in Confessions was filmed by his parents. He says, ‘It was like having an Indian wedding, the only difference was that I was getting married to my dance style!’

As well as being a tale of self-discovery in the vein of Billy Elliot, this show is a prescient exploration of cultural identity and the idea of feeling like a ‘foreigner’. As Shane asserts, this is a subject that is ‘absolutely vital’ for Britain in 2018. Nationalism, immigration and British identity have been at the forefront of political discourse and while it’s a contentious topic, the migrant culture existing today is part of our history. ‘I feel it is important to recognise that the idea of British-ness is no longer rooted in the appearances of one, but recognising that, as in all cultures, British culture is also transient and has moved into a new phase and renewed identity.’ Multiculturalism is implicit in Britain, so much so that Shane remembers his Indian-born dance teacher who corrected his English as a child.

Married with this political undercurrent is a healthy dollop of comedy, two elements which work incredibly well together. As Shane sees it, ‘Comedy, for me is just being honest about what is happening. I think audiences laugh when they recognise the truth and how absurd it is.’ This is a tool which is put to good use in all sorts of popular media, from Mock the Week to Have I Got News for You, and it’s not just comedians looking to incorporate such conversations into their work. Shane recommends that anyone interested in the theme seek out Bharatanatyam dancers Seeta Patel and Kamala Devam, both of whom are bringing a contemporary edge to the form. Equally, Aakash Odedra is a very well established Kathak artist bringing a contemporary dance/ theatre angle to his work, while Sonia Sabri (a member of Live & Local’s Board of Directors) is constantly finding new avenues through which to explore her style.

Shane Shambhu performing Bharatanatyam dance.

One might think that given the intensely personal arch of the show, it would be nerve-wracking to share it with people all over the country. Actually, Shane loves it and finds that in both rural and urban areas, ‘audience reactions to the work really highlights that having a multiplicity of identities isn’t something that people have thought about or recognised.’ Every audience is different and while some might respond more to the specifically Indian jokes, others revel in the broad comedic observations. ‘It is completely unpredictable which is why I love performing this to new audiences.’

The ability to be open on stage is a skill Shane cultivated over years of performing. He is now an associate member of the international touring theatre company, Complicité, something which he credits as being ‘one of the most impactful and memorable experiences in my life.’ There he has discovered the potential of theatre without boundaries and in working with Director Simon McBurney, gained a ‘freedom pass for creativity.’ Even so, Shane admits that looking back on early footage still feels a little embarrassing. What would he say to his younger self right before that first performance in Hornchurch 24 years ago? ‘Enjoy the journey and keep working hard. There will be hard times, just keep persevering and everything will make its way to you and will make sense in the end.’ He adds, ‘Actually, I still say this to myself now!’

Please join us for Confessions of a Cockney Temple Dancer at The Court House, Warwick on Thursday the 22nd of November. You can book here and find more information here.

Confessions of a Cockney Temple Dancer will also be playing at The Peel Centre, Dronfield. Find out more here. 

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