Artists have created site-specific works in a variety of unique spaces – away from traditional proscenium stages. The Californian company Bandaloop regularly performs on skyscrapers and mountains, Corey Baker brought ballerina Madeleine Graham to Antarctica for Antarctica: The First Dance, and on a much smaller scale, I created an improvisational screendance on a windowsill. Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company TooMortal has been presented at a variety of churches from London to Venice and Belgrade. The 20-minute piece was also performed up to four times a day at the London Dance Umbrella Festival in 2013, but it’s now online as part of the SJD SHORTS series until July 5, 2020. (You can view the film, directed by Gary Tanner, on the Shobana Jeyasingh DC Facebook page and YouTube channel.)
Shobana Jeyasingh: TooMortal Review
As the title TooMortal appears on screen, it immediately contrasts with the human perception of ‘tomorrow.’ Although many of us are eternally fixated on the future, we are never guaranteed its arrival.
Instead of organ music, we hear chimes. Instead of the somber colors of religious robes (or even white), the six female dancers wear red. That, paired with the rising incense, brings us somewhere in Asia. But mortality is universal – across countries and religions; so it isn’t too strange when the chimes morph from meditative tones into melodies that you might hear from a grandfather clock.
The dancers fill the hallowed space, whether thrashing through it or occupying it in stillness. But the ambiance of the church reflects in the production, too. At the start, the soft, muted light lends a gentle cocooning ambiance. Afterward, a triangular shadow lurks in the background like an ominous hooded specter. And later, yet, an eerie blue-green glow illuminates the pews from the bottom, hinting of a mysterious other world beyond reach.
For the most part, each dancer stays within the aisle between two wooden pews. They pop up at the sound of a chime and drape their bodies over the structure or they sink into the pocket below, hidden from view. Even though the dancers often move in synchrony, each individual seems to perform solo, instead of collectively. The most intriguing moments occur when they interact on the peripheries of their boundaries: pursuing, escaping or simply watching each other.
The piece contains serene floating and gliding phrases, as well as more forceful movements when they grasp the pew to yank their torsos around. Sometimes their heads rest heavy in their hands, as they contemplate in stillness. The meaning of live, perhaps? They reach over the pews in short-lived pas de deuxs before half of the dancers slip over the barriers. Together, the pairs dance, before permanently falling below. These connections were the most profound in the dance – and, as a general rule, they’re also what is most significant in the numbered days of our lives.
It was interesting to see dance (other than liturgical dance) performed in a church, since some churches have labeled the activity immoral. The recording was shot well, but I couldn’t quite grasp the gravitas of the work. 20 minutes seemed sufficient to explore their movement motifs (which thankfully remained quite modern, instead of falling into miming); and I wasn’t left craving more. However, the piece didn’t get under my skin like I had hoped – and anticipated. Undoubtedly, sharing the sacred church space with the dancers in person would add another dimension.
Did you manage to catch Shobana Jeyasingh’s TooMortal in person at the Dance Umbrella or elsewhere? Or did you see it online as part of their digital series? Let us know what you thought about the site-specific church dance in the comments field below.