Mysterious, enigmatic, beautiful: Shobana Jeyasingh’s TooMortal

June 22, 2020

David Mead

It was back in the summer of 2012 when a friend and I joined a small crowd inside St. Pancras Church, that porticoed Greek Revival building that stands opposite Euston Station in one direction and The Place in another. The occasion was TooMortal, a half-hour work created by Shobana Jeyasingh for historic churches. Afterwards, we looked at each other near-speechless. TooMortal had wowed us that much. I’m sure it helps having seen it ‘in the flesh’ but it looks seriously good on line too.

The dance may be one for six performers but it relies just as much on its surroundings. The muted light coming through the windows and the misty, dusty atmosphere add hugely to the mystery of the work. I also remember how empty the huge space seemed, how peaceful too despite the evening rush hour traffic outside.

But just as TooMortal needs its dancers and buildings, so it needs Cassiel’s remix of James MacMillan’s Tenebrae Responsories. The beautiful soundscape of tolling bells, strident chords and chanting echoes and reverberates around the space.

The flat calm is suddenly disturbed by six dancers in crimson dresses who appear from within the wooden pews. Arched backwards over them, it feels like they are the undead: bodies returned temporarily from their burial place. There is a sense of mystery and of foreboding as they breathe and take in their surroundings.

Surprise follows surprise. The invention in the choreography shows just what can be done in a small space. The pews make for great hiding places, always something is hidden. I don’t think we ever see a whole body.

The dancers sink and re-emerge from their hiding places. Connections galore are made in the mind. From graves and coffins, mine went via Dracula’s brides to the sea. As the women grow restive, the dance gets more frenzied. They are emotionless yet full of emotion. Empty faces but bodies brimming with energy and passion, all of it searching for a release, and escape. They look like they are being tossed by waves in a giant storm before being pulled back to the depths once more, usually slowly and gracefully,

Elsewhere there are contemplative stillness, more forceful moments when the dancers pause to stare, unblinking, at the audience. A super moment sees them slide along the pews like table football players. And then there are the unison sequences, all done with super synchronicity, and that recall Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas Danst Rosas.

Towards the end the six become three duets. As their arms and heads entwine, there’s a sense of peace before they slip from view for the last time.

It’s only 20 minutes, but there is so much here.

Quite magnetic and a joy to revisit.

Watch TooMortal on YouTube at until July 5, 2020. The performance is bookended by Shobana Jeyasingh in conversation with Sanjoy Roy.