Dance of deathly beauty: Shobana Jeyasingh’s Contagion

British Library, London
November 3, 2018

David Mead

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 is reckoned to have killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide. That’s at least double the generally recognised total of civilian and military deaths in the First World War. Yet for so long the story of the virus was forgotten. Look around and there is a marked absence of memorials to those who died. Perhaps it was not understood. Perhaps the story of war is simply more compelling. Certainly, the virus didn’t lend itself to a narrative of heroism or sacrifice. It left no victors to write the history, only victims.

Shobana Jeyasingh’s Contagion commemorates the pandemic in an utterly captivating and 30 minutes of dance, made all the more powerful for the audience by most being seriously upclose.

A cascade of 24 rectangular white blocks fill the space. The rubble of war, fallen gravestones, hospital beds, mortuary slabs, read them as you will. They also provide a surface for Nina Dunn’s video designs that include magnified images of the virus and archive film from the Imperial War Museum.

Shobana Jeyasingh's ContagionPhoto Jane Hobson
Shobana Jeyasingh’s Contagion
Photo Jane Hobson

The choreography echoes the features of the flue. Dressed in Merle Hensel’s close-fitting off-white costumes that echo bandages, the eight dancers’ bodies constantly twist and contort, rise and fall. Arms are outstretched and appear to be trying to repel the unseen virus. We hear wheezing and see silent screams. There is some inventive partner work as they try to help each other but more than anything, there is a sense of helplessness, of the inevitable; and for many that’s precisely what death was once the flu had been contracted.

Colour slowly comes into the work: dark red, then purplish-red, then dark purple, reflecting the passage of the virus in the body. Among other symptoms, it caused a deep purple rash.

The use of headphones gives everyone watching a real immersive experience as they watch the suffering and listen to Graeme Miller’s soundscape that includes recordings of those who experienced the virus. Different accents and voices remind us that the flu was no respecter of ethnicity, nationality or place, although age was a factor in the chances of survival. Unusually, death rates were highest among young adults.

For all that the subject matter may be difficult, unpleasant even, Contagion is aesthetically stunning. The dance and the fabulous dancers have a haunting beauty that I guarantee will stay will anyone who sees the piece. It ends with them standing silent as we remember those who perished.

Contagion has now completed its tour, but it can still be viewed on YouTube.