Staging Schiele: Celebrating the Abject Corporeality of an Austrian Artist’s Sickly Subjects
Choreographed by Shobana Jeyasingh and performed by her eponymous contemporary dance company, Staging Schiele is a kinetic celebration of the work and life of Austrian artist Egon Schiele. The piece premiered on October 18 in Ipswich and then completed a tour around the United Kingdom, which culminated in two final performances at London’s Southbank Center last week. For those who may have missed one of the seven shows, there will be an online broadcast of the entire performance on November 15 at 17:00.
Manon Dane Hurst as artist Egon Schiele in Shobana Jeyasingh Dance's Staging Schiele (Photo: Foteini Christofilopilou)
Intended to be a pseudo-ekphrastic transformation of Schiele’s dynamic portraits of nude and semi-nude bodies into the medium of dance, Staging Schiele successfully captures the raw and, at times, horrifying emotional atmosphere embodied in Schiele’s art. The formal simplicity of the show—which features just four dancers, a single metal cage for the set, and minimalistic streetwear as costumes—only serves to accentuate the emotional intensity of the choreography and music. Dane Hurst plays Schiele himself, while Catarina Carvalho, Sunbee Han, and Estela Merlos are supposed to represent the three most influential women in Schiele’s life: his mother Marie Schiele, his muse Wally Neuzil, and his wife Edith Harms. While Schiele’s characterisation is obvious, the distinction between mother, muse, and wife is rather difficult to discern.
“Staging Schiele is led by a response to the artist’s paintings and drawings rather than the motives behind them,” Jeyasingh writes in the show’s program. “The nervy landscape of his self portraits, his intriguing double portraits, [and] his frank unsettling depiction of women and relationships are the inspiration.”
That the choreography was inspired by the emotional affectivity of Schiele’s work comes as no surprise. Though the entire performance is only 55 minutes in length, the choreography and corresponding soundtrack manage to touch on concepts as nebulous and existentially significant as anxieties about the limits of the human body and the profound sense of isolation that can result from the supposedly shared experiences of sex and love.
Dane Hurst and Estela Merlos in Shobana Jeyasingh Dance's Staging Schiele (Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)
The piece opens with a solo by Hurst in which he contorts his body into various positions as he looks at himself with a small hand mirror. The soundtrack, composed by Orlando Gough, features a voice reading Schiele’s poem “Ein Selbstbild” (or “Self-portrait”). A visualisation of Schiele’s own artistic process, Hurst attempts to view his body from every angle as he forces himself into uncomfortable and ugly shapes.
As the performance continues, each of the female dancers emerges onto the stage. All of the dancers wear an assortment of semi-sheer street clothing and nude-colored undergarments. As the dancers move about the stage with jarring, angular movements that mimic the emaciated forms of the bodies in Schiele’s portraits, their clothes billow open to reveal the strain of their perfectly sculpted muscles. The athletic musculature of the professional dancers is perhaps the most obvious deviation from the sickly skeletons who serve as the subjects of Schiele’s portraits. Despite the physical differences between Schiele’s subjects and Jeyasingh’s dancers, the dancers’ sickled feet, distorted facial expressions, and jerky movements manage to convey the abject corporeality of Schiele’s portraits. The physical effort exerted by the dancers is obvious—and even dramatised—rejecting the traditional view that a dancer should never reveal the difficulty of the movements performed on stage.
An interest in the limits of corporeal existence, perhaps unsurprisingly given Staging Schiele’s medium, provides the strongest link between Jeyasingh’s choreography and Schiele’s art. As a cacophonous barrage of industrial noises, human voices, and bodily sounds fill the auditorium, the dancers engage in a sort of Dionysian spectacle. They contort their bodies into angular forms, make gruesome faces, mimic acts of frantic fucking, drag themselves across the floor, and let themselves be pulled across the stage like stiff corpses.
The choreography plays with the limits imposed by the human body, pushing the dancers to physical and emotional extremes. The focus on corporeality is perhaps most evident in the work’s inclusion of bodily sounds: the heavy breaths and moans that make up the music and the noises the dancers’ bodies make as they interact with the props, each other, and the stage. The slapping of skin on skin, skin on leather, and skin on wood is audible over the music as the dancers twitch and writhe around the stage.
Sunbee Han and Estela Merlos in Shobana Jeyasingh Dance's Staging Schiele (Photo: Foteini Christofilopilou)
In making physical contact audible, the limits of such contact are revealed and stressed. Regardless of the force used to make contact with another person, thing, or environment, our bodies are ultimately self-contained and limited by their physical form. Even while engaging in acts of supposed physical pleasure and intimacy, the dancers’ movements and facial expressions reveal the presence of bodily discomfort and emotional isolation. We are imprisoned in our flesh, unable to escape our own subjectivity and the limitations imposed by our corporeality. The discomfort that arises from the acknowledgment of our physical forms and their emotional and physical limitations resonates throughout Staging Schiele.
While the world of contemporary dance can often seem opaque and impenetrable, the emotional power—and existential relatability—of the work imparts Staging Schiele with the ability to be accessible to a broad audience, regardless of any prior interest in or knowledge of dance. Staging Schiele reminds us that, at its core, dance is simply the transformation of internal thoughts and emotions into physical movement.
For more information about the online broadcast, Staging Schiele, and the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, visit shobanajeyasingh.co.uk.