In 1918, a Spanish flu pandemic infected one-third of the world’s population and killed over 50 million people. Contagion is a major new dance installation from choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh exploring the global spread of the virus and the war that it waged on mankind. Co-commissioned by 14–18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, Contagion comes to the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester on Sunday 21 October as part of the Manchester Science Festival.
Shobana, this is an incredible subject for a dance work. what led you to it?
I was asked to come up with an idea to commemorate the last year of the war. I had always been a great admirer of the Austrian artist Egon Schiele, and went to see an exhibition of his work where I saw that he had died in 1918 of the flu pandemic. On researching this I realised how little I knew about the pandemic, despite it being one of the most devastating episodes of the last century.
Is Schiele’s work reflected in your choreography for Contagion?
He was the starting point and he remained an inspiration during the creative process, especially in the way he depicted bodies seemingly under duress. His paintings were done before the pandemic and I find his work very prescient.
Contagion is a promenade piece, what does that mean for the audience?
The audience will be mostly standing and have a close and intimate experience of the work. However, we do have some benches for those who do not wish to stand.
As well as dance, film and music play a big part in the work. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
The pandemic has a large, historical narrative sweep. The projected imagery and the soundscape will provide an anchor for the dance. For example, the soundscape will include powerful personal testimonies by individuals who lived through the pandemic. The projected imagery will help us get closer to the architecture of the virus itself.
You have been working closely with the UK’s top influenza expert, Professor John Oxford, Emeritus Professor of Virology at the University of London. How has his advice affected the piece?
Before I went to talk to him I had thought that the pandemic was a dark story of suffering and death. John Oxford drew my attention to the work of the volunteer nurses and other ordinary care givers (many women and children) who nursed their loved ones despite risk to themselves. These people really showed what the human spirit is capable of.
Schiele died, aged 28, of Spanish flu after he nursed his wife. His is just one of many powerful and tragic stories. Was there anything you came across in your research which you were particularly struck by?
There are too many tragic incidents to pick out a few. Nirala the Indian writer lost most of his family within a few days and he wrote about the numerous corpses piled on the river. India lost almost 20 million lives to the flu and in the dearth of existing written testimonies, Nirala’s pain and bewilderment speak to us movingly from down the centuries.