In the week that Mark Bruce’s Dracula was to hit town, opening at Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End of London, Shobana Jeyasingh got the gothic atmosphere rocking with a revival of her in-situ piece, Too Mortal. Performed in St Pancras Church (often known as the New Church), which sits imposingly on the Euston Road, with a striking tower and portico in Greek revivalist style, its Portland Stone as gruesomely stained by the pollution from one of London’s busiest thoroughfares as the nicotine-stained teeth of the vagrants we might still sometimes find sleeping on the stone steps outside. Steps that were once covered by a sea of floral tributes to the thirteen victims of the 7/7 bombing of the No 30 bus in nearby Tavistock Square. One of those who died on that bus was Anat Rosenberg, a charity worker who was well-known on the London dance scene. All these thoughts made this iteration of Too Mortal an especially poignant event.
Inside the darkened, smoky atmosphere of the church, a small audience stands before the altar as six women emerge out of the recesses of pews, enclosed by doors to closely resemble long open-topped coffins lying on the floor. They are unevenly spaced, each occupying their own enclosed box, with four on the right and two to the left. It’s not Dracula but these could be his three sirens/brides in duplicate, waking up from their daily resting place in a Transylvanian crypt.
The ethereal impact is greatly enhanced by atmospheric lighting, smoke, the sound of bells and the sundry, diverse smells of devotion in this old Grade-1 Listed Victorian church. A haunting soundtrack by Cassiel remixes Tenebrae Responsories by James MacMillan to evoke overlapping thoughts of turbulence and solemnity; of wooden vessels negotiating a stormy sea (perhaps Dracula again, with the stricken captain of the Demeter lashed to the ship’s wheel as the craft runs aground on the shore at Whitby); or of the silent supplication of generations of religious devotees.
The early imagery of mermaids ploughing through the waves or vampires awakening morphed into a very different allusion as the dancers, dressed in red, arched their backs over the sides of the pews like dying swans draped over fallen tree trunks. Then – in a surreal shift of emphasis – they become a synchronised swimming team, without the obligatory nose clips but with the same emotionless expressions, plunging in and out of the dark recesses of the pews, as if silently sliding through the water of a black lagoon. Then, they become players attached to the rods of a table football game, with three pairs of dancers, facing each other, sliding along the edges of the pews, manipulated by unseen hands in an attempt to find the space that will score the goal. It’s remarkable how so many images spring into place in such a short time (the work is just 20 minutes long, repeated thrice-nightly).
The dynamism rattles along with the closest of harmonies in the women’s synchronisation. Occasionally, dancers take a rest, sitting in the farthest edge of their pew, staring forward without emotion, like so many members of bygone congregations occupying the same seats. In the final moments, three dancers slid over the wooden boundaries to join a partner, with the six occupying just three pews, clasping each others’ elbows and shoulders.
Jeyasingh creates a multitude of ideas and a surprising range of movement for dancers so confined in their small spaces. We are voyeurs witnessing a very intimate sequence of scenes, performed exceptionally smoothly by her deliberately passionless sirens. But this is a work that always has a seventh performer, taking on the idiosyncrasies of each historic church that embraces it. St Pancras Church seemed to be the perfect setting.