Posted on November 21, 2018
In 1918, just as World War I was drawing to an end, humanity sustained another lethal attack, this one from the influenza epidemic known as Spanish flu that infected 500 million people. Fifty to 100 million died, roughly three to five per cent of the world’s population. Life expectancy in the US fell by about 12 years during the first year of the pandemic, because it killed healthy adults as well as children and the elderly.
The commemorative events that have marked the centenary of World War I have paid tribute to its combatants, victims and survivors. In Contagion at the British Library, Shobana Jeyasingh has bypassed the ravages of war to focus on an even more devastating killer that rampaged, indiscriminately, through peaceful Pacific islands as well as overcrowded military outposts.
Given the subject, you might expect the familiar trappings of illness – rolling bedsteads, aproned nurses – to set the scene, but Jeyasingh doesn’t impose such limits on her imagination. Instead, the designer Merle Hensel devised a tumbling cascade of white oblong plinths, some piled to the sky, others fixed on stage in neat rows like cots or coffins.
Sorrow permeates the 30-minute dance installation from the beginning, when eight women advance between these plinths with their arms covering their faces and their backs curved by the burden of loss. A voice speaks of corpses in the Ganges – “It was the strangest time of my life. My family disappeared in the blink of an eye” – before dissolving into laboured breathing as the dancers throw their heads back, gasping for air.
Depicting relentless pain without softening its brutal edge, Jeyasingh matched choreographic concision to ruthless intensity to reveal every stage of the disease’s excruciating progress. The women contract into twisted frozen poses, beat their heads with their fists, squirm like flickering fish, stand and fall in convulsions, snap into rigidity. In pairs, they wrap their arms around one another to subdue flailing limbs and cradle exhaustion. By the time the group receded, gliding silently backward to disappear into shadow, she had indelibly stamped this tragedy on our minds, and I thought we were watching ghosts.
Never a stranger to difficult subjects, Lea Anderson took on bigotry and rejection in her clever choreography for a production called Fat Blokes, directed by Scottee, a performance artist and self-described “forward-facing fatso.” Entering the Purcell Room of the Southbank Centre, we found two hefty men in trousers, shirtsleeves and ties before a wall of cardboard boxes. As one of them strode forward and began to strip, Scottee began berating the giggling audience. “What’s so funny,” he demanded, “about him or me getting our kit off? You’ve come to a show called Fat Blokes, and 55 seconds in you’re already laughing at us.”
“Any dance fans here tonight? Wrong show,” he continued. “If you’re fat, make some noise. This show’s for you.” In the funniest, angriest political harangue and group therapy session – Fatties Anonymous with names added – I’ve ever witnessed, he and four defiant fat blokes proceeded to tell their own stories, with Anderson’s choreography either linking or illustrating their personal declarations.
What kind of dances do you make for ordinary substantial gay men? Simple, sophisticated dances. Teasing chorus lines, no more elaborate than step-touch. Playground dances of paths crossing at regimented right angles with someone always left alone or breaking away to boogie. A slow, romantic ballroom dance for a single couple, part tender embrace, part shared rhythm. A disco solo, crowned by a joyful smile, to “Dancing with Myself.” An ensemble involving all five, who stripped to their thongs one by one and let it all hang out.
Who else could so effectively acknowledge snobbery, abuse, embarrassment, love and pride in a few easy steps? Unfazed by the men’s weight, sexuality and inexperience – chosen from open auditions, several said they’d never been onstage before – Anderson’s direct approach celebrated their bodies and their feelings at once.
Pictured: Shobana Jeyasingh’s Contagion. Photographs by Jane Hobson.