Dance inspired by flu pandemic to be staged at Sunderland church

Contagion will be staged next week. Picture by Jane Hobson.
Contagion will be staged next week. Picture by Jane Hobson.
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A major new dance work commemorating the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 – which killed more people than the First World War – is to be performed in Sunderland.

Acclaimed and highly-respected Shobana Jeyasingh Dance will perform Contagion in St Gabriel’s Church Hall in St Gabriel’s Avenue on Thursday, October 18, and Friday, October 19.

The church hall was used as a temporary hospital during the 1914-18 war and remained open to treat victims of the flu pandemic.

Directly exacerbated by troop and civilian migrations from the war, the 1918 pandemic infected one third of the world’s population and killed more than 50 million people.

At its height it claimed more than 100 Wearsiders a week, with people dying through pneumonia or heart failure as a result of the virus. The most deadly week saw 167 people die.

Undertakers had to bring in rules to help speed up funeral services to allow them to be able to deal with the high rate of fatalities.

Some residents in Sunderland believed the outbreak was due to bad bacon or ‘ war bread’ – a bread with reduced wheat, bulked out with oats, rye and barley. Sunderland West End Medical Society stated in the local press that this was not the case and citizens should not worry about this.

Contagion is part of the Sunderland Stages programme and was co-commissioned by 14-18 Now, the UK’s arts programme commemorating the First World War.

It is inspired by the spread of the virus and is set to an atmospheric soundtrack. Eight female dancers contort and mutate as they explore both the resilience and the vulnerability of the human body.

The striking work of the Austrian artist Egon Schiele, who fell victim to Spanish Flu, forms a visual footnote to the promenade piece.

Shobana Jeyasingh said: “The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic whose centenary is marked this year is beginning to assert itself in our collective memory as one of the most dramatic episodes of global proportions. I very much hope that Contagion will serve as an act of commemoration.”

•Tickets for Contagion can be booked via Sunderland Stage’s website – www.sunderlandstages.com. A free workshop inspired by Contagion will reveal how the work’s choreography was inspired by the tragedy. It’s at St Luke’s Church Hall, Merle Terrace, on October 17 from 6pm to 8pm.