Image Credit: JP Masclet
We gather at the cemetery adjacent to St Mary’s Church at Stoke Newington before ritually being led into the sanctuary of the old building. Standing at the altar, we haphazardly position ourselves like an unrehearsed choir facing the congregation of empty pews. The high ceilings and ancient pillars also appear to be anxious for the performance which is about to commence. Six female bodies unexpectedly emerge amidst the pews to the sound of chiming bells, their probing movements suggest that they are excavating the space until they lower their bodies gravely back into the pews. The audience, now assembled at a higher place, witness TooMortal, a new dance work for historic churches presented by Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company.
The dancers execute motifs which seem to portray characters from biblical stories. They resurrect their bodies time and time again before dwindling down like fallen angels. They move like slithering subversive creatures dwelling in the labyrinth of the pews unless - in sparse moments - where their hidden lower limbs momentarily surface before whirling down into the abyss again. At times, the dancers portray the simple pedestrianism of church-goers whilst gazing morbidly at the audience but the audience member might feel the urge to wander away from the altar, to escape the awkward stare, or to move closer to the pews and witness the performance in a more empathetic way.
The lighting design by Yaron Abulafia creates an eerie ambience, giving the pews an altogether sullen look. The dancers, donned in red tunics and purple leggings designed by Ursula Bombshell, look like images dragged out of a fresco that adorned the walls of the church whilst the soundscape, Tenebrae Resonponsories by James MacMillan remixed by sound artist Cassiel, is a conjugal choice to both the space and choreography. The poignancy of historical churches reflects beautifully in Jeyasingh’s choreography and dancers Avatâra Ayuso, Alejandra Pelegrin, Audrey Rogero, Emily Absalom, Noora Kela and Vanessa Abreu have a presence that seamlessly translates the essence of the piece.
Unlike most of Jeyasingh’s works, the premise for TooMortal’s movement vocabulary does not lie in the bharatanatyam framework but, instead, draws upon her inspiration from the historicity of an architectural space. The result is a contemporary piece of work within a religious structure. Her interplay of the positions of the performer and the audience cleverly questions the role of the watcher and the watched and she brilliantly juxtaposes the fragility of living bodies against the long-standing edifices. With an existential question of mortality as a subtext, TooMortal is an innovative way to draw the masses back to the church.
TooMortal is being performed in historical churches across Europe, for tour dates please visit www.shobanajeyasingh.co.uk