BWW Review: CONTAGION, British Library
The British Library isn't the most obvious place to stage a dance installation, but in the case of choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh's Contagion (which has toured to other non-theatre spaces around the country) the mezzanine floor of the main auditorium of the library takes on the ambience of a dedicated and exactly the right performance space.
Contagion was commissioned by 14-18 Now, a programme of artworks commemorating the centenary of the First World War and associated events. Contagion references a pandemic of avian influenza, popularly known as the Spanish Flu, which broke out in 1918. It's typical of Jeyasingh to bypass the obvious markers of the war to focus on something that is largely unknown.
Aided by the movement of troops, the flu spread swiftly around the world just as the war was ending and, within a year, infected up to 500 million people - a third of the world population - and killed up to 100 million, three times more than the war itself did. In the time since then, the pandemic has been largely forgotten, eclipsed by the war that ensured its global spread.
Contagion draws its main themes from three aspects of the pandemic: the sheer number and universality of deaths and how it rapidly wiped out entire families on a global scale; the human body's vulnerability in the face of the virus's ruthless efficiency at hijacking its defence mechanisms; and the lack of medical knowledge, and how this was compensated for through the ministrations of survivors.
Given its ambitions to address all of the themes outlined above, it would have done the production a disservice if it had chosen to recount and interpret these stories through abstract dance alone as some dance purists in the audience posited.
However, it did need Graeme Miller's soundscape of personal, medical, documentary testimonies and poetic wordplay ("I had a little bird, her name was Enza. I opened the window and in flew Enza") played through individualised headphones that immersed the listener in gasped breaths, flutters of bird wings, barking dogs and slammed doors. It rendered the experience very personal and private within a public performance.
Eight female dancers, wearing flesh-coloured playsuits designed by Merle Hensel, portray the moments close to death, as they writhe, contort and mutate, exploring both the vulnerability of the human body and the virulent nature of the disease.
They do so on white plinths, tumbling out of nothing and scattered across the floor, which are representative of hospital beds and morgue slabs, and intermittently used as projection screens (video by Nina Dunn) to depict archive footage of the war, the cyanotic and necrotic effect of the flu virus on the external and internal organs of the body and solarised outlines of fevered bodies inspired by Austrian artist Egon Schiele - who also succumbed to the disease.
The dancers, necks and shoulders glistening with sweat by the end, contort and stretch to convey the feverish listlessness of victims, the shuddering delirium and hallucinations, the rictuses and spasms of faces and limbs in death throes. At one point, the dancers repeatedly replace each other on the plinths in vivid imagery that invoked how high the death toll climbed.
There are poignant moments of heart-wrenching tenderness too that revolve around the selflessness of those caring for the sick - mostly women - the mothers, spouses, siblings and volunteer nurses.
They form a cathartic counterpoint to the violent imagery of disease and suffering that has gone before, and lead in to the final scene - which showcases Yaron Abulafia's sensitive and striking lighting design - of a candlelight vigil to memorialise the dead.
Contagion is sharp and precise, but also imaginatively inventive. In a short half an hour, it manages to pack in more emotional engagement than many shows can muster in two hours, and is all the more stunning and moving for it.
Photo credit: Jane Hobson