Even before it has begun, Shobana Jeyasingh’s latest work is dense with imagery. It is made for historic churches – buildings already replete with stories and symbols about birth, life, death. Jeyasingh draws power from these overtones without being swept up by them; rather, the choreography engages its setting variously as support, constraint, spur or adversary.
The opening is a choreographic gauntlet flung into the church: six crimson-clad women are spewed up from the empty pews, landing aslant the wooden dividers. To the clamorous chimes of the score (James MacMillan’s Tenebrae Responsories, remixed by sound artist Cassiel), the first section sets forth one overriding image: the sea. The mist-filled nave (the word means “ship”) is pierced by shafts as if from a lighthouse, and the women, almost always seen only from the waist up, have the air of mermaids. They rise up and sink from sight as if the pews were waves, or lean out over the aisle like figureheads breasting the chasm between parted waters.
But it’s the sea inside that Jeyasingh is after, the turbulence and the tides beneath the skin. The women grow restive, grappling with the walls of their separate pews or sliding along them as if these were imprisoning tanks. As the music churns and crashes, they dive, founder, surge, drown; above all, they struggle. All this is achieved with stark, simple actions and a monumental solemnity, so that the turmoil feels not personal but iconic.
The piece preaches no message, but is powerfully suggestive of submerged stories and sentiments, of what is below the surface – indeed, below the waist. What you make of these images – how you fathom these seas – depends on how they reverberate with your views and feelings on the church, on women, on life and afterlife, but they have a forceful undertow.