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.

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