In Staging Schiele, Shobana Jeyasingh Dance brilliantly captures the work and life of Austrian artist Egon Schiele, and reframes the stories of his female models.
Dance has always drawn on literature, poetry and the visual arts for its inspiration but rarely on the life, relationships and style of an individual artist. In the space of an hour the new production by Shobana Jeyasingh Dance teases apart all these elements in a raw and visceral exploration of Egon Schiele, the man and his work. Many figures in his drawings and studies, particularly his self-portraits, seem to force an escape from their boundaries of frozen gestures and impending collapse so that an eruption into the vital energy of dance has the satisfaction of a release.
Dancer Dane Hurst captures the haunted expression of Schiele, exploring the artist’s complex, disturbing ego and his exposure of the most intimate vulnerability of the human body. The production uses a minimal set of a cage-like structure which serves to signify the artist’s period in prison in 1912 for moral offences and seduction of a minor. It is a portal into which the dancers disappear and crawl from into the light; and it is a screen on to which flickering images of the artist crash and fracture. This is all set to a soundtrack that evokes the discordant songs of avant garde night clubs in Schiele’s turn-of-the-century Vienna. Composer Orlando Gough describes these as a ‘cabaret of anxiety’. He explains in the programme that several texts inform the music for the production. These include two poems by Schiele and one by Rainer Maria Rilke, the latter of which is an extraordinary delineation of the total possession of the loved one in corporeal form. The dance fuses expressive and contemporary choreography with the disconcerting tortured bodies that float across the void spaces of Schiele’s sketches. It takes the uncompromising sexuality of his subjects and constructs a narrative in which the women who posed for the artist now stake their claim in an intense drama of physical tension.
Schiele used the Bohemian and fashionable dancer Moa Mandu as a model in many portraits from 1910. Her partner, the mime-artist and cabaret performer Erwin Osen, was also Schiele’s close friend with whom he shared studio space and who appears as a subject in his paintings. The articulation of intense states of emotion, of ‘pathological expression’ through the body was thus a shared artistic preoccupation. Staging Schiele therefore reinvigorates the collaboration between art and dance which already informed the artist’s work.
The interest in female hysteria and complex psychological states was intense in fin-de-siècle Vienna. In his book, Constructing the Viennese Modern Body: Art, Hysteria and the Puppet, Nathan J. Timpano writes that the artistic manipulation of the pathological body into a puppet-like figure controlled by the artist developed at this time: ‘the puppet body served as a symbol of the expressionists’ desire to communicate a theatrically rich gestural language to their viewers through the bodies of their sitters’. Rather than Freud’s analyses, it was the published photographs of patients suffering from various levels of psychosis or ‘hysteria’ which gave expressionist painters like Schiele the visual framework for much of their exploration of the body. Medical treatment of hysteria always had a theatrical element, as doctors demonstrated their skills with their (usually female) patients before large audiences. The patients were routinely divested of their outer clothes and appeared in shifts, further exposing them in a sexually exploitative context.
In Staging Schiele close attention has been paid to the dancers’ costumes. Although deceptively simple nude-coloured underclothes leave their bodies flexible and free, the shirts and loose jackets which Schiele’s subjects stretch and wrench have been studied and recreated for the dynamics of the dance. The green and red swathes of a half discarded coat in Redemption (1913) and the self-conscious focus of Self-Portrait in Yellow Waistcoat (1914), along with the taught folds of a shirt which a female model clutches to her body in Standing Female Nude with Raised Shirt (1913) or the clinging green gauze round the legs of Standing Female Nude with Green Garment (1913) clearly represent Schiele’s obsessive interest during those years in the artistic potential of representing clothes which reveal and constrain the body, rather than offering any comfort or protection. They are props for the figure’s struggle or submission.
In the dance, Hurst’s Schiele wrestles with his unstructured jacket, and uses it to envelop and dominate his models in extraordinarily fluid sequences. These appear to be the logical progressions of the poses struck in Schiele’s actual portraits. However, dance opens up the hidden stories in the original works and the perspective of the models themselves; that is, dance allows the dancers to assert their individual responses to the imbalance of power which prevailed in the artist’s studio. Schiele may have been an original and inventive artist but he was a man of his times and the victims of his creative energy were often the women who nurtured and supported his work. This is particularly true of Wally Neuzil, who was his model and loyal partner but was not considered as a potential wife.
Three incredibly versatile dancers in Staging Schiele, Cararina Carvalho, Sunbee Han and Estela Merlos, embody the women who confront the viewer in the portraits. They assert their presence on the stage. Following Hurst’s sensuous dialogue with a mirror in which he seeks his own image from every angle, the models reject this sign of his own ego and enact a subtle interchange of control and surrender. The dance allows more extreme display of sexual ritual than the exposed and imperfect bodies of the portraits which are vulnerable, less confident and more contained. The portraits play with foreshortened angles, the weight of hips and thighs pressed to the floor, the strained sinews, awkward elbows and knuckles pressed and pulled. But in the balanced control of the dance, practised and measured movement allows a liberation of the still body of the studio pose. The defiant gaze of the model is translated into the strong position of the head and the symmetry of the dancer’s posture. Any vestiges of discontent on the part of the model as she was scrutinised and dissected by the artist’s pencil become animated in the vocabulary of the dancer’s body. The dancers in Staging Schiele have impressive individual skills and experience in international performance and choreography, in both contemporary and classical dance. Working together and with Shobana Jeyasingh and her collaborators has resulted in a work of intense visual power and deep emotional impact; a performance that received rapturous applause, and deservedly so.
Shobana Jeyasingh Dance’s Staging Schiele was performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank, on the 4th and 5th November 2019. For more information, click here.
Images in article:
- Feature Image Catarina Carvalho and Dane Hurst in Shobana Jeyasingh Dance’s Staging Schiele. Image by Foteini Christofopoulou.
- Egon Schiele’s Redemption (Erlösung), 1913, Opaque color, pencil on Japanese vellum, 48 x 32 cm, Albertina, Vienna.
- Egon Schiele’sSelf-Portrait in Yellow Waistcoat, 1914, Opaque color, pencil on Japanese vellum, 48.2 x 32 cm, Albertina, Vienna.