Staging Schiele

Concept, choreography & direction Shobana Jeyasingh, music Orlando Gough
Shobana Jeyasingh Dance
Queen Elizabeth Hall Southbank Centre

Catarina Carvalho in Staging Schiele Credit: Chris Nash
Estela Merlos in Staging Schiele Credit: Chris Nash
Catarina Carvalho and Estela Merlos in Staging Schiele Credit: Chris Nash

Egon Schiele died aged only 28 in 1918 during the flu epidemic that killed many more than WWI itself. Last year, the Royal Academy celebrated the centenary of his death with a joint exhibition (with Gustav Klimt who died the same year) of drawings, and five years ago in 2014 the Courtauld Institute held a wonderful exhibition titled The Radical Nude. In 2016, there was a biographical film Death and the Maiden, and in June this year the BBC showed Egon Schiele Dangerous Desires.

So, there are no excuses for not knowing who Schiele is, but I do wonder what if. What would someone knowing nothing of Schiele make of Shobana Jeyasingh’s just under an hour-long “response to the artist’s paintings and drawings rather than the motives behind them”? Art and dance, anatomical studies, fit like a hand in glove, but motives, or at least the interior of the man, seem impossible to avoid.

Four dancers, Dane Hurst looking uncannily like a compact Schiele (not as etiolated), and three women (Catarina Carvalho, Estela Merlos and Sunbee Han) taking on the females in his life (his mother, lover and wife) and his gutsy models (“I had to paint her / Because of her stare”), replicate some of his erogenous canvases, no holds barred. The male gaze returned by the female.

There’s voyeurism, frottage and masturbation, woman on woman action and women giving no ground. Torment (Christ on a cross pose?), an obsessive nature aflame with orgasm, raw defiant paintings that lean towards the gynaecological (erotic and autoerotic), predatory and provocative, but Staging Schiele does go on a bit.

The dancers are superb—Hurst in particular holding the attention, his eyes fixed on a distant horizon—but how many permutations of twisted poses, skewered shoulder stands, limbs dislocated, from different perspectives does one need? Contorting, self-conscious, Hurst / Schiele is either enamoured of himself or is pushing the boundaries of what the body can do.

With mirror in hand, the scuttling narcissist scrutinises every inch of his own flesh, the crotch in particular. One woman, his mother, kicks that mirror away. The women, faces in silent screams, gives as good as they get, riding him in sexual skirmish, tussling in a battle of the sexes, caressing their own sexual power.

A frame of a building with vertical strip lighting on the outside gives it a Dan Flavin and a red light district aesthetic. Costumes by Cottweiler contribute to the adult theme—nude underwear, see-through shirts, red bras, and fabulous baggy brown leather overcoat and slashed trousers for Hurst. The colour scheme (something of the Renaissance about it) is just right.

Orlando Gough’s fractured, granular score, distorted voices reading poems in German—Rainer Maria Rilke and Schiele’s own verse and letter from prison are in the contextual mix—attempts a closer grip on Schiele. The result feels like an avant-garde Weimar cabaret.

On Ben Cullen Williams’s dark set lit by Adam Carrée with video projections by YeastCulture, Staging Schiele is just that: an art installation, a pilgrimage into his soul, an homage. Period black and white German expressionism photography projections flicker and fade, his face a mirage from the past. Incremental and mysterious—creativity in action—scribbled turmoil, vortices of the mind.

Thoughtful and thought-provoking choreographer Jeyasingh’s Contagion about that 1918 flu pandemic would make an interesting double bill with Staging Schiele.

Jeyasingh’s company, an Associate Company at Southbank Centre, celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year. Staging Schiele, a Southbank Centre commission, supported by DanceEast, will be the subject of an episode of Shobana Jeyasingh Dance’s podcast series Surface Tension later this year and a filmed version of the show will be online at 5PM on Friday 15 November on the company’s web site, Facebook page and You Tube channel.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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