Shobana Jeyasingh Dance: Contagion

Attribution/author:Article by: Kelly Apter

Captivating new dance installation remembers the devastating impact of the Spanish Flu pandemic

One of the most overwhelming aspects of the First World War, is the vast number of people who died during it. But in 1918, an equally devastating assailant was taking down both civilians and soldiers in droves worldwide. Primarily attacking those aged under 35, the Spanish Flu killed more than double the number of people who died as a consequence of war – yet nobody talks about it.

Funded by 14-18 NOW, the organisation set up to commemorate the centenary of World War One, Contagion focuses not on the guns and trenches – but this other, even more deadly killer. A virus that hi-jacks human cells then replicates itself, the Flu caused (among other nasty symptoms) a purple rash to creep across the body, delirium and hallucinations.

Choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh captures all of this and more in her arresting new dance installation. Seven dancers, dressed in nude-coloured leotards, are surrounded by large white plinths scattered across the stage like over-sized rubble. Reminiscent of both grave stones and hospital beds, the rectangular boxes are variously filled with light or covered with archive film footage drawn from the Imperial War Museum. On top, the dancers squirm and flinch, open their mouths in silent screams or drape limbs listless from fever across the side.

Jeyasingh's name may be above the door, but this work is a true collaboration, with Merle Hensel's set and costumes, Yaron Abulafia's lighting, Nina Dunn's video design and Graeme Miller's composition melting into one another with sleek fluidity. Millions of people died from the Spanish Flu, but each one will have dwelt in their own private hell during its attack – an intensity replicated here by the use of headphones. Each audience member is locked into their own world as they listen to Miller's score mixed with voiced testimonials of those who experienced the virus.

Yet for a show tackling such an unpleasant subject matter, Contagion is aesthetically beautiful to behold. And, lasting just 30 minutes and free to attend in venues across the UK, an admirably accessible piece of contemporary dance that can't fail to hold you in its grasp.

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance: Contagion, Gymnasium Gallery, Berwick-Upon-Tweed, Sat 15 Sept, 1pm, 3.30pm, 6pm; Sun 16 Sept, 1pm, 3.30pm, then touring.

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