An informative and stimulating DANSOX event, hosted at St Hilda’s College on 9th November, heralded Shobana Jeyasingh’s new work, Clorinda Agonistes, which played to full houses at Oxford Playhouse last week.

Speaking at DANSOX, Jeyasingh described her work’s lengthy gestation period. The inspiration that she drew from hearing Claudio Monteverdi’s operatic scena Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda led her to research the story derived from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata that lay behind it. Initially drawn by Monteverdi’s use of recitative, which Jeyasingh felt had an emotional effect similar to the vocalisation of syllables in classical Indian dance, she discovered a story that in spite of its late mediaeval orientalising tropes offers new resonance and meaning for audiences today.

Clorinda is a female Saracen warrior at the time of the First Crusade, who after a daring attack on a Christian siege engine engages in mortal combat with the crusader Tancredi. She refuses to tell him her name, and when he has fatally wounded her, he realises that she is the woman with whom he has fallen in love from afar. She has discovered shortly before that her birth religion was Christianity, and as she dies seeks baptism, to wash away her sins.

Jeyasingh has transformed Monteverdi’s version of Tasso’s story into a longer work with a Prologue, and an Epilogue composed by Kareem Roustom. Roustom wrote specifically for vocalist Ed Lyon, who performed the role of the narrator Testo magnificently on stage on the Tuesday, and mezzo soprano Dima Orsho, whose recorded voice sings an Arabic libretto translated from Tasso’s work. As the work transitions from the Monteverdi to the Roustom score, the setting shifts seamlessly from the time of the Crusades to an unspecified contemporary Middle Eastern war zone, with images of urban destruction projected behind the dancers. In this setting, Clorinda becomes any and every woman, embodied by four dancers that ricochet across the stage, clutching babies, crawling and dragging themselves along the ground, linking together and then tearing themselves apart, under the male gaze of a television crew, safely clothed in bullet-proof vests.

Jeyasingh described to the DANSOX audience how she created movement with her dancers, their bodies fulfilling the function of a writer’s pen. Tancredi’s character (compellingly danced by Jonathan Goddard) is conveyed through a courtly verticality and elegant formality, described by Jeyasingh as ‘Baroque cool’. Dancers Harriet Waghorn, Ellen Yilma and apprentice dancer Alanah Corbridge showed the DANSOX audience elements of an alternative movement grammar created in the studio, demonstrating its low centre of gravity and influences from martial arts and Dabke (Levantine folk dance). On stage, Jemima Brown performed this dance vocabulary with a commitment that strongly emphasised Clorinda’s ‘otherness’.

At DANSOX, and again in an onstage after-show interview at the Playhouse with Professor Emeritus Sue Jones, Jeyasingh spoke of the significance of numbers. The three characters in the Monteverdi scena (Testo, Tancredi and Clorinda) became six unnamed individuals in her Epilogue (four women, and two men). Wednesday evening’s performance offered an unexpectedly different view. Tenor Ed Lyon was indisposed and replaced at short notice by Nicholas Mulroy who sang from the score at a music stand on stage. Mulroy, understandably, did not participate in the choreography as Lyon does, making the Monteverdi scene between Clorinda and Tancredi a duet, rather than a trio in which she is outnumbered on stage by the two men. The balance of the Epilogue also shifted interestingly, with Goddard as a one-man camera crew filming the four female dancers (Brown, Waghorn, Yilma and Emily Thompson-Smith).

Merle Hensel’s set, lit by Lee Curran, with its eight slender translucent pillars suggests at different times a forest and an urban jungle. The powerful use of colour and imagery, the total focus of the dancers, and their close connection with the singer and on-stage instrumental musicians (a string quartet with harpsichord and chitarrone), results in a work of extraordinary intensity.

While oppositions dominate (male and female; East and West; Moslem and Christian; the Middle Ages and the present day), there are also subtle and interesting tensions between watcher and actor, and questions around what we can or cannot know, and who controls our narratives. At a time when the world is riven with war, Clorinda and Tancredi’s story is a terrible warning. Her resolute refusal to tell him her name, identifying herself only as his enemy, provokes in him the violence that culminates in her death and his realisation that he has killed the woman he desires the most. There is no glory in his victory; only pain. Clorinda, in death, experiences apotheosis: ‘Heaven is opening, I go in peace’.

The detailed and beautifully illustrated printed programme that accompanied the performances was a fitting memento of a serious dance event that fully met the audience’s high expectations on the opening night.

Maggie Watson

25th November 2022