Material Men redux

Design Process

Simon Daw (Set, Costume & Video Designer) discusses the process of creating Material Men redux with choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh.

Spring 2015
I was in the middle of an intense research period on another project when Shobana rang out of the blue to talk about costume and set design for Material Men, the first incarnation of Material Men redux. At that point the key information was that Elena (Kats-Chernin) was writing the music and that there were two very different dancers and dance styles. I’d done quite a lot of design for contemporary dance and ballet but never worked with classical Indian dance or hip hop. I was intrigued.

Summer 2015
I like designing for new dance works as in my experience all aspects that combine to make the final piece develop in parallel in a very organic way, informed by each other. We had a really effective research and development period in London over this summer with the composer, Shobana and the dancers working together in a rehearsal room in London. Shobana brought a sari into the studio to use as a metaphor for India and home. It became such a strong idea, almost a third dancer – even a naughty child sometimes, it was so unpredictable!
It was great for me to be in the studio, watching. The hip hop stuff that Shailesh does is so immediately impressive, the way he throws himself about, you worry he’s going to injure himself. And I was struck too by the controlled flow of Sooraj’s classical Indian dance. And how Shobana was able to get these two styles of dance to come together naturally.

Shobana and I talked about the themes of the project, the idea of movement and borders. I started collecting images of border fences, these places where some people are allowed to go through and others aren’t. And this led to the main sculptural element of the set, a line of high poles which cut across the stage.

Summer 2016
As Shobana started to explore the dancers’ personal family history we started to investigate further about the journeys undertaken by indentured labourers. After the tour of Material Men in autumn 2015, Shobana realised there was so much more to say and decided to create a full-length version – Material Men redux. Shobana wanted to use archive footage and photography to help tell the story of these people taken half way round the world to work as indentured labourers, barely one step up from slavery, and the core focus of the work became the journey from Calcutta to Suriname taken by Shailesh’s great great grandparents.

Shobana talked to me about adding video projection and film to the design and it struck me that it would be great to add video to the set itself. We set up some tests to experiment with mapping video onto the set and the Sari.

Autumn 2016
I was listening to the new version of the soundscore, where Leafcutter John has added the recorded voices of the dancers and statistical information – about the ships’ lists, who is on the list and what happened to them. It’s very moving.

I originally came from a Fine Art Photography background before moving into stage design so the use of film and image is always a very natural extension of my set and costume designs. With a design such as this one for Material Men redux, it is important to for me to keep control of set, costume in order to really focus on what is central to the piece.  We asked Jo Walton, an image researcher, to find out what images of indentured labour there were. We needed to get a sense of what was available to us. As well as the journey taken by Shailesh’s family, we wanted to look at the many different routes taken by indentured labourers from India – to South Africa, Jamaica and Malaysia as well as South America.

Jo pulled in images from all over the world. Shobana and I looked at this material and edited it down to a few key images which tell the story in a very visual way. To get a feeling of what these people went through.

Indentured labour thankfully was outlawed before the arrival of film so we only have still images from this time. I’ve intercut these with film footage from the 1920s showing workers on sugar plantations, using tiny snippets of film and repeating them again and again, showing the endless drudgery of the work.

January 2017
Shobana and I are still exploring how we use the film. One of our key conversations is about how we show the film on stage. Sometimes we will project the film onto the sari, stretched out to form a screen. At other times, more abstract images – the waves of the sea maybe – are projected onto the fence poles of the set.

It’s been a technical and compositional challenge to use these very old images. One of the things we do is to zoom gradually into the detail of the images, revealing clues to the audience.  For instance, a shot of children getting breakfast on a ship, slowly pans across their ragged clothes until eventually it discovers a child’s frightened face.

We are nearly there, making final finishing touches to the film. I’m preparing options which we’ll try with the lighting, the final music and the dancers to find out what works.

©Simon Daw 2017

Photo by Jane Hobson