SJD Shorts online
August 17, 2020
A response to the 1919 influenza pandemic that resulted in an estimated 500 million deaths worldwide, Contagion was commissioned by the 14:18 NOW commemoration of the Great War. Choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh had no idea how very relevant to today it would become.
Among the most affected groups by that ‘Spanish flu’ were adults between the ages of 20 and 40. Fitting perhaps then, that young people are chosen to represent the disease, images of which are projected onto white blocks that double as tombstones and deathbeds, and on which the all-female cast writhe and contort their bodies.
They do so in flesh-coloured biketards and knee pads. Wisely, no attempt was made by designer Merle Hensel to suggest period, rather it feels more a sci-fi-like clinical setting with an accompanying percussive, electronic score by Graeme Miller. Effort and breathing are palpable.
Movement is punctuated by overlapping readings of contemporary descriptions of physical signs as the dancers gape and crawl in illustration. Bird-like screechings are projected in the soundtrack. Influenza virologist Professor John Oxford and Laura Spinney, author of the superb book on the pandemic, Pale Rider, are credited, so perhaps this is a reference to its possible avian origins. The dancers glare fixedly ahead, then gape again as they crawl along the blocks, then sit on them, then writhe in couples.
A bell tolls as the projected outline of a dancer fades from the block. Yaron Abulafia’s lighting design is predictably orange, yellow and red, lights flashing on and off to bounce off the white blocks. Dancers slump. The bell tolls on.
In spite of the excellent credentials of those involved in the research, and the dancers, I have to say that I did not find Contagion in any way moving. I doubt that anyone would attempt to present the last moments of a Covid-19 patient’s suffering in such a way, and I’m not convinced that the passage of a century of time makes it any less inappropriate representation of the millions who died of Spanish flue in 1918 and 1919.
It was odd in the light of five months and counting without live performance to see people sitting next to each other, and unmasked, in the audience. I suspect the work may well have had a different impact seen live, especially when seen close up ‘in the round’. There are glimmers of viable live performances being undertaken, so let us hope that it will be increasingly possible to judge works designed for the stage and a live audience in the setting for which they were intended.
This version of Contagion has been edited from a live performance filmed in Winchester Cathedral.
Shobana Jeyasingh’s SJD Shorts version of Contagion can be watched on YouTube until August 24, 2020.