Too Mortal, St Mary's Old Church, London


Shobana Jeyasingh’s latest work was created to be danced in churches, with an international tour taking it to church buildings from Venice to Stockholm. The free event is performed entirely in and over the pews: dancers surge up between the wooden divides and sink out of sight again, as if floating and diving between wooden waves.

The audience stands before the altar, looking back down the nave. The dancers climb from one bench to the next, or lie sprawled across several rows, but they never cross the aisle. It’s a very contained dance, with expansive movement held within the rigid structure of the pews.

The first UK performances, presented by Dance Umbrella as part of the London 2012 festival, were held in St Mary’s Old Church, a tiny Elizabethan building tucked into a corner of Clissold Park. Sunlight slants in across stone and brick arches, an atmospheric jumble of styles and materials. The next British performances are at St Pancras parish church, a much more unified space; this is a tightly-focused dance designed for a changing setting.

The sound installation, by Cassiel, remixes bells and snatches of James MacMillan’s Tenebrae Responsories. Ursula Bombshell’s costumes, red tunics over purple leggings, suggest ecclesiastical colours.

Jeyasingh’s choreography thrives on the restricted space of the pews. Her six female dancers will follow the strict, regular lines of the seating, or push against it. They arch over the high wooden barriers in extravagant, swooning backbends, dangling into the aisles. The dancing is full of swooping curves and muscular abandon.

As Jeyasingh works around the wooden benches, finding ways to vary the movement, the dancing becomes vividly evocative. There’s sea imagery as the dancers bob in and out of sight, and patterns that suggest machine parts or a hunt in process. The dancers slide sideways on their benches, zipping back and forth like shuttles in a loom. They face the audience, or turn their attention to each other, tracking another dancer’s movements as she dodges to the side.

Bottled up in a small space, Too Mortal is full of surprises. Dancers will pop up from nowhere, then vanish again. In the middle of a flowing sequence, they’ll turn to look straight at the audience, meeting our gaze without a blink.

At St Mary's Old Church, London until 30 June, then touring. At St Pancras Parish Church, London from 12-14 July.