Shobana Jeyasingh’s Contagion is the direct descendent of her 2012 work TooMortal. Both are performed by eight women in non-theatre spaces (TooMortal in churches, Contagion in museums, libraries and halls), and both poetically integrate sound, light and set with choreography based more on imagery than drama.
But where TooMortal suggested a journey through life, Contagion hovers at the point of death. Commissioned by the 14-18 NOW programme to mark the centenary of the first world war, Jeyasingh found herself characteristically drawn to a sidelined story: not of trenches and shellshock, but of the Spanish flu pandemic that began just as the war was ending, killing more than twice as many as the entire war, on a global scale.
The performance space is strewn with white plinths: sickbeds or morgue slabs, scattered like dice and intermittently used as screens to project archive footage of the war, images of the flu virus itself (it looks uncannily like a naval mine), and the solarised outlines of fevered bodies. The dancers, in simple bandage-like costumes, often sprawl awkwardly over these boxes, limbs twisted and heads dangling as if left lying where they fell. The audience wears headphones, so that the whole performance feels oddly personal: a private, not a public, experience.
There’s a story of sorts, loosely stitched from fragmented voiceovers from diaries and medical records. The dancers’ opening gestures form solemn icons of pleading and loss, but the piece soon turns more biological.
The sound of gasps mixes with fluttering wings and the cries of birds (it was an avian flu), while the dancers transform into inhuman agents moving through sequences of set moves: spines flexing and elbows jutting, fingers clamping upon the boxes.
The consequent contortions and rictus spasms suggest a body occupied by unseen invaders, no longer in command of its own territory. Yet such grotesque, genuinely disturbing images break, like a fever, into a scene of patient labour and infinite tenderness: women attending to the sick.
For the war this spare, poetic work commemorates had no nation, no victory, no surrender. Its battleground was the human body, its unsung heroes the people – mostly women, of course – who nursed it.