By our editor in chief, Donald Hutera
Exclusive to The Winchester Guide
This autumn Shobana Jeyasingh Dance brings its latest work ‘Contagion’ to six science, art and war-related sites across the country. The tour opens September 15 and 16 at the Gymnasium Gallery in Berwick-upon-Tweed, a former army barracks where soldiers were sent to keep fit during the First World War. The good news for residents of Winchester and environs is that the second stop of the tour is September 22 and 23 at the Great Hall in Winchester – a truly stirring location.
Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, and supported by Wellcome, ‘Contagion’ commemorates the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic which ravaged the world to a greater degree than the Great War itself. Directly exacerbated by troop and civilian migrations from the First World War, the pandemic infected one third of the world’s population and killed over 50 million people.
‘Contagion’ is a promenade performance which underlines the irony that, while human warfare raged in the trenches, a silent and far deadlier enemy was waging war within the human body itself. The choreography echoes the scientific features of a virus: rapid, random, constantly shape-shifting. A cast of eight female dancers contort, strategise and mutate as they explore both the resilience and the vulnerability of the human body. The extraordinary work of artist Egon Schiele, himself a victim of the pandemic, is a powerful artistic footnote to the performance. His depiction of twisted bodies and expressive lines perfectly captures the physical and psychological anxieties of the times.
As a Winchester Guide exclusive, our editor and contributor Donald Hutera interviewed one of the dancers in ‘Contagion’ via email. Avatâra Ayuso is both a long-time member of Shobana Jeyasingh Dance and the company’s Associate Artist, as well as being an experienced and celebrated dance-maker herself.
Donald Hutera: How has Shobana Jeyasingh gone about finding movement with the cast of ‘Contagion’ that might correspond to and convey symptoms of the Spanish flu?
Avatâra Ayuso: Shobana has been reading a lot about the Spanish flu and talking to expert virologists to understand the disease. She shared her knowledge with the dancers in the studio, and via a process of creative tasks we gave shape to those words, images and behaviours of the virus and its symptoms.
DH: What determined the casting of eight women in the piece?
AA: Women actively took caring responsibilities during the pandemic. Men were busy at war, but women were fighting another kind of war at home. Most of the information we have about the flu is thanks to the letters these women wrote. They are actually the heroines in this episode of history. Having an all-female cast made total sense.
DH: How is the performance structured over-all?
AA: The audience is going to experience a journey that will take them from the most personal stories to the inside of the virus. The visuals, music, costumes, lighting are in close relation with Shobana’s choreography, helping the audience to travel with us, the dancers.
DH: What is the soundtrack for the show?
AA: That is going to be a very special part of the work! I cannot reveal part of it, but I can assure you it will create a very touching atmosphere. The soundscape is supported by real texts of some survivors of the flu.
DH: What are you wearing in the performance?
AA: Very simple costumes. The body is the protagonist in this choreography. Seeing the muscles in action, the lungs, the face and the backs is very important to understand how the virus affected the body.
DH: Are there any direct historical sources in ‘Contagion’, or is it more of an abstract work? I am wondering how much of its historical time it might be…
AA: As I mentioned, there are some texts extracted from real testimonies made at the time. They are very moving. The work flows from literal sources to an abstract representation of the effects of the virus. Both extremes complement each other very well.
DH: What new discoveries are you making about dance and yourself as an artist as a result of being involved in this project?
AA: More than a discovery, it is a re-confirmation that I love working with set designs – despite the difficulties! Working with an active set design like the one we have is always a challenge for the dancers. The body suffers to start with, as a new element enters your creative life. This means your brain and body have to be in total awareness every single minute to avoid accidents, and to develop a strong relationship with the set. Despite all of this, I love it! Once you and the set ‘understand’ each other, you can deliver the emotional story in a much deeper way.
DH: In what ways might ‘Contagion’ be considered new territory for Shobana? What do you think she might be discovering about her art-making as related to the making of this work?
AA: In the ten years I’ve been with Shobana Jeyasingh Company, it is the first time we have used such a big set design. On its own it is a beautiful work of art that will get ‘re-dimensionalised’ by the dancers in motion. Shobana enjoys any new creative challenge and with every one of these challenges, new movement ideas and relationships with the space emerge.
DH: Is there anything else you think it might be useful for a prospective audience member to know about ‘Contagion’ or Shobana’s work?
AA: It will be very moving and visually stunning. Don’t miss the opportunity to see this work. We, the dancers, are looking forward to meeting you. And remember, Shobana is one of the greatest choreographers in the UK!
Contagion is being performed on Saturday 22 & Sunday 23 September at 11am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm in Winchester Great Hall, The Castle, Castle Avenue, Winchester SO23 8UJ.
Booking: 023 8065 2333 / www.thepointeastleigh.co.uk
Tickets: Contagion is included in the entry fee to Winchester Great Hall – £3 for adults, £2 for children under-16 with concessions and family tickets available.
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