At one with its site: Shobana Jeyasingh’s TooMortal returns

St. Pancras Church, London
September 25, 2021

In her podcast Surface Tension, Shobana Jeyasingh talks about the challenges of site-specific theatre. “Whatever you stage, [the site] is like a partner; it’s singing those stories, so you’ve got to put your story next to that song and see what comes up.” Now her twenty-minute production of TooMortal reacquaints itself with St. Pancras Church, where it previously appeared as part of Dance Umbrella in 2013.

The audience enters the church completed in 1822 to seat 2,500 worshippers, walking down the aisle to take its place in front of the altar. Save a single, blue beam trained on a crucifix, the nave is dark and quiet. Six dancers in bright red rise out of a sea of pews, folding backwards: a bird’s eye view of six women sleeping. Arms resting above their heads, the wooden boards of the pews become their pillows. Despite the strength and contortion required to hold it, the peaceful image soon gives way to a tumultuous journey. The dancers navigate the tight rectangles of their pews, sinking into them like coffins lowering into graves then springing back into view.

Shobana Jeyasingh’s TooMortal at St Pancras Church
Photo Yaron Abulafia

As the six dancers increase to eight, four on either side of the aisle, they embody the church’s most famous architectural feature: two sets of four caryatids that stand at the north and south entrances to the crypt. Upon completion St Pancras Church was an early example of the Regency Greek revival and the delicate drapery of the dancers’ costumes mirror the caryatids’ sculpted garments. Jeyasingh uses the pews to visually edit the dancers’ bodies; they often look cut off at the midriff. As the caryatids were initially cast too tall, their mid-sections were similarly sliced away to shorten them to fit into their porticos.

At its climax, TooMortal evokes the chaos of a ship’s deck during a storm. The dancers lean perilously ‘overboard’ before they are thrown from side to side. Movements performed by those in front are repeated by those behind, sequences rippling backwards in waves. And the high seas are not so distant. The church, like the British Museum and Mansion House, is faced in Portland Stone, containing the fossils and petrified currents of ancient seas.

In these ways, this instalment of TooMortal brilliantly releases some of the stories held in the bricks and mortar of its latest home.