Image: JP Masclet
Written by Hannah Jelliman
The church is a place of spirituality, religion, prayer and God, or maybe not to Shobana Jeyasingh; the company’s new work, Too Mortal, transforms churches into a place of dance, innovation and an incredibly unique performance. Commissioned as part of the London 2012 Olympic Festival, Shobana Jeyasingh Dance present several free performances in churches around London, Worcester, Venice and Stockholm that make you re-think these religious spaces.
As I enter the extravagant St Pancras Church in London, I am eager to see how the budding choreographer has used the space, hoping for unpredictability and excitement; I certainly wasn’t disappointed! Trained in classical Asian dance form Bharatanatyam, Jeyasingh specialises in hybrid contemporary work as well as transforming various locations through site-specific choreography. Her choreography is frequently pioneering and original, with Too Mortal being no exception to this creativity.
Image: JP Masclet
The audience are led into the church and told to stand on a set of steps at the altar, looking back towards the rows of wooden seats. The space is instantly theatricalised with mist and dark lighting, creating an eerie atmosphere and a strong sense of anticipation and the unknown; there is unnerving silence as the giant entry doors are closed. Uneven, echoed chimes reverberate around the space as the audience eagerly await the dancers. Suddenly, six dancers appear, flopped backwards over several of the wooden pews, distorted and lifeless as though they have been washed ashore or thrown over the waves of wood. Images of waves and the sea are re-occurring, influenced from the etymology of the church’s Nave from the Latin for “ship”. The dancers roll over the edges of the pews, creating waves of movement, clever use of canon creates a rippling effect and the dancers frequently peer over the edge or attempt to dip a toe in the invisible waters on the central aisle floor. Shadowed blue lighting adds to the peculiar nautical atmosphere while the boxes of the pews act as hiding spaces, bodily cut-offs and coffins.
Although the dancers don’t touch physically until the very end of the piece, they carry impeccable timing in unison sections, breaking in and out of unnerving stillness in perfect harmony. The piece is full of fantastically unpredictable timing as well as original Contemporary movement and inventive dancer-space relationships. The piece is only 20 minutes long, but is packed with several unique choreographic ideas which develop nicely into the frantic closing phrase with dancers seemingly filling the entire church despite staying in their confined boxes.
It would be interesting to see how the piece transfers to churches of different shapes and sizes, but in the magnificent St. Pancras church it was spectacular and mesmerising. Shobana Jeyasingh has successfully created yet another individual and impressive piece of dance outside of the confines of the sometimes predictable theatre setting.