Journey into Jakatas – finding dance inspiration in Buddhist texts

Composer and producer Sebastian Reynolds on how an interest in meditation grew into a new dance show Mahajanaka Dance Drama that is touring the UK this November. 

I first became interested in Buddhism, specifically Thai Buddhism, including meditation and the practice of chanting, in 2004. That was when I started learning meditation from a Thai master Nai Boonman, who is the founder of the Samatha Trust, a UK based meditation charity.

Sebastian Reynolds © Miles Hart

Sebastian Reynolds © Miles Hart

Through the organisation I met Dr Sarah Shaw, a very respected Buddhist scholar based at Oxford University. Sarah was working on translations of the ancient Jataka texts, from the original Indian language Pali into English. I read her book of translations of Jatakas for Penguin Classics, and became particularly interested in the Jataka tale of Prince Mahajanaka.

Jatakas are the stories of the Buddha to be (Boddhisatta) in his previous lives as he trains and prepares for Enlightenment. In tandem with taking an interest in these ancient texts, I visited Sri Lanka and Thailand, learning Buddhist chanting techniques and spending time on retreat.

Mahajanaka Dance Drama in development at DanceXchange © Oliver Holms

Mahajanaka Dance Drama in development at DanceXchange © Oliver Holms

In 2007 the singer of Blur and Gorrilaz and general polymath Damon Albarn presented Monkey: Journey to the West stage show and, inspired by this, I started to conceive the idea of a music and dance show related to Therevadan Buddhism. I grew more interested in Jatakas and Mahajanaka Jataka more specifically.

Mahajanaka is a story about maturing and coming of age, and the need for renunciation to attain spiritual awakening, lessons that related deeply to my own life experience. Coupled with the fact that music and sound feature very heavily in the narrative as emblems of the noise of Samsara [the cycle of life]versus the silence of Enlightenment, I thought it would be a thematically and dramatically fascinating story to bring to a western audience – especially given the ever increasing interest in Eastern spirituality via yoga and Buddhist meditation.

Following my initial self-funded travel in Asia, I was supported by the Arts Council England/British Council joint fund The Artists International Development Fund to travel to Thailand in May 2016 to meet with potential collaborators and backers. I had already brought in Neon Dance to help develop the idea, and Adrienne, artistic director of Neon Dance, travelled with me along with two filmmakers, Sam King and Liam Martin. Check out this documentary video from the trip:

During the trip, we met with Thai dance master Pichet Klunchun and composer and music academic Pradit Saengkrai, who both agreed to come on board. We had already met our other Thai music collaborator Great Lekakul in the UK as he was at SOAS University during this period.

For the trip we were given valuable support from Professor of Classical Thai Literature Arthid Sheravanichkul at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. We timed the trip so that we were in Bangkok for the Buddhist holy celebration of Vesak day, and Arthid organised for us to visit many of the temples on Vesak day, which was quite an experience!

Working with Pichet and a dancer from Neon Dance, Tilly Webber, and dramaturg Miranda Laurence we painstakingly worked through the narrative of Mahajanaka Jataka scene by scene, deciding what the most important points in the text were to depict by dance and music. We also developed the idea for supporting the presentation of the narrative via some animated scenes, working with Sun and Moon studios in Bristol to create the animation, made in a style inspired by Thai shadow puppetry and the works of early animators such as Lotte Reiniger.

Mahajanaka Animation © Sun & Moon Studios

Mahajanaka Animation © Sun & Moon Studios

The structure of the piece sees it follow the traditional Thai dance and music and then break away both choreographically and musically. I created a series of sound worlds from sampling the Thai instruments in the rehearsal studio, and from old ethnographic records that I have of Thai traditional music.

Having the whole team together for the entirety of the making process meant that it was a very organic and often spontaneous creative environment and we’re thrilled to finally tour the work around the UK this November!

Mahajanaka Dance Drama will be performed in Oxford (13 November), Bournemouth (14 November), London (16-17 November), Cambourne (20 November) and Huntingdon (21 November). Details and tickets at sebastianreynolds.co.uk/shows

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