And yet, while World War I is remembered and the centenary of the Armistice is commemorated, the victims of the Spanish Flu are all but forgotten.
Choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh’s Contagion is one step towards remembrance – and what a remarkable step!
An intense dance installation, Contagion has now reached the British Library in London after a successful national tour. Multi-function white plinths are dotted haphazardly on a wide landing, with viewers all around, some on the stairs, some looking down from the floor above, a few sitting low at performance level.
The eight women of Shobana Jeyasingh Dance, clad only in flesh coloured leotards, file slowly in, while the soundscape, conveyed to spectators through individual headphones, narrates the experience of one Indian family devastated by the epidemic, and of the river Ganges ‘swollen with dead bodies.’
The women move as mourners or supplicants, their arms reaching up to heaven as if to beg the gods for mercy or deliverance.
The loose narrative of Contagion is divided into four sections; and in section two, aided by subtle video projections, we witness the virus’ invasion, first as an impressionistic flock of birds, then as images of the virus itself as isolated, many years later, in laboratories.
Now the women enact their bodies’ struggle to repel the virus. Their movements febrile, legs and arms stretching out, kicking, they lean on each other, vaulting the plinths in a vain effort to get away, before finally succumbing.
Section three is harrowing. Here the women depict the ravages of the disease: the delirium, the rictus of pain on faces, the jerky contortions of bodies, the hallucinations. It’s an almost unbearably powerful sequence, the suffering and despair palpable – and contagious.
Contagion draws to a very humane, moving finale that enacts the care given sufferers by selfless relatives, who stepped in where the medical profession, baffled by a then unknown illness, were helpless. The dancers’ movements become slower, gentler; and the piece ends on a note of kindness and light.
A collaborative work with sets and designs by Merle Hensel, atmospheric lighting by Yaron Abulafia, video design by Nina Donna and soundscape by Graeme Miller, Contagion was co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the organisation set up to mark the centenary of World War I.
Still, all that would count for nothing without Shobana Jeyasingh’s fierce intelligence and outstanding ability to tell a story and convey emotions through her meticulous choreography. In the perfect narrative arc of Jeyashingh’s Contagion the 50 million victims of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic have finally been offered a fitting act of remembrance.
Related Talk: Sat 3 Nov 19:00
|Shobana Jeyasingh, Contagion Review
|British Library, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB | MAP
|King's Cross St. Pancras (underground)
02 Nov 18 – 03 Nov 18, Fri 18:30 & 21:00 Sat 18:00 & 20:30 Dur.: 30 mins approx
|£12 (£15 performance + talk)
|Click here to book via the British Library