Shobana Jeyasingh Dance: Contagion at the British Library

Posted: November 9th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Shobana Jeyasingh Dance: Contagion at the British Library

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance, Contagion, British Library, November 2

Contagion

Noora Kela (not in this cast) in Contagion (photo: Chris Nash)

The fact that the first wave of the Spanish Flu pandemic erupted across the globe in the last year of the First World War has contributed to its sidelining in our collective memory where the memorialization of the war has taken precedence. Yet according to recent calculations it killed far more people than the warring nations combined and while troop movements inevitably contributed to the spread of the virus, its devastating effects on the armed forces may also have been one of the factors that led to the end of hostilities. It is therefore appropriate that 14-18 NOW has commissioned a work about the pandemic as part of its commemoration program. Shobana Jeyasingh’s Contagion is precisely what one would expect of her work: carefully thought through, well researched, and adapted to the choreographic form with a wealth of visual, aural and corporal metaphors.

In the absence of the fathers, husbands and brothers who had been called up to fight, Jeyasingh’s all-female cast — Avatâra Ayuso, Catarina Carvalho, Vânia Doutel Vaz, Sunbee Han, Rachel Maybank, Estela Merlos, Emily Pottage and Ruth Voon — represents the mothers, wives, daughters and sisters whose ‘acts of kindness’, as she writes, ‘were the only beacons of kindness in an otherwise dark world.’

The spread of the pandemic followed its own logic but with the dearth of viral science and a lack of any health measures it seemed to strike indiscriminately. Even this aspect has been assimilated into Contagion by presenting it in places that are not customarily dance venues. Merle Hensel’s white rectangular plinths can drop into any size of communal space, from Winchester Great Hall to the British Library mezzanine, serving as seating, beds and sarcophagi — the macabre order of architectural elements encountered in the course of the disease — and as lighting boxes and projection surfaces. With the performers’ plain, neutral-coloured leotards, their bodies become opaque under Yaron Abulafia’s lighting and seemingly transparent through Nina Dunn’s projections, a visual battlefield on which the symptom of creeping cyanosis spreads as well as the movement of the virus entering the cellular microcosm and reaching its noxious tentacles throughout it. The patterns on the bodies are reminiscent of the lurid stippling the artist Egon Schiele used to define the volumes of his painted nudes. He died of the flu in 1918, just three days after losing his pregnant wife to it. Families were wiped out ‘in the blink of an eye’.

While the aesthetics of Contagion derive from the virus’s pathology the performers embody both the intensity of the victims’ physical attributes and the emotional response of those caring for them. The work begins with gestures of supplication in the face of the onslaught and closes with stoically resilient gestures in retreat; in between we hear the harsh inhalations from damaged lungs or see victims sitting shivering in delirium on the plinths, their faces distorted and fearful. The intricate pairing of dancers becomes a metaphor for the way the virus replicated itself, with bodies locking together and falling away behind the plinths juxtaposed with archival footage of soldiers offloading their stretchers.

Graeme Miller’s soundscape, in which accounts from the Indian poet Tripathi Nirali and an extract by Francisco Henriques Loureiro from the Collier Archive in the Imperial War Museum are embedded, is conveyed through the intimacy of headphones, as well as a children’s rhyme repeated to a flickering moving image of a girl skipping:

I had a bird
It’s name was Enza
I opened the window
And in flew Enza.

Nothing, it seems, can contrast the everyday devastation more poignantly than the ludic preoccupations of children but like all the creative inputs in Contagion their significance has a menacing undertone; the projection of birds in flight and the wild flapping of wings we hear conflate innocence with the avian origins of the pandemic.

In drawing together diverse fields of artistic expression, Jeyasingh’s gem of choreographic intensity extricates from relative oblivion a historical event that in its impact on world populations was more devastating than the war it outlived. While commemoration of the First World War seems more concerned with patriotism and the political rhetoric surrounding death, a viral war has no battle lines so there is no possibility of one side declaring victory over another. Irrespective of nationality,Contagion reminds us that compassion is the great healer and that art, as Columbian artist Doris Salcedo suggests, ‘brings into experience those aspects of reality that our society ignores and keeps in obscurity’.