A double perspective on Shobana Jeyasingh’s Staging Schiele

Perspective I: Katie Hagan

Where would art be without its tragic figures who are at the unenviable helm of despair, destruction, vexation and woe? Definitely filling the stereotype of tortured artist, it is no wonder Austrian painter Egon Schiele’s characteristically intense work and surreptitious biography attracts interpreters to this day.

Shobana Jeyasingh is no exception. Her Staging Schiele, which toured this autumn and was performed for the final time at London’s Southbank Centre this week, presents an artist divided between the three loves in his life: his mother, wife and lover.  

Through this lens, Jeyasingh critiques the sexual objectification of women in art, and puts to question whether Schiele’s work – which art historians assign to the former – is indeed voyeuristic, or borders on compassionate, honest depictions of what it is to be a woman.

Jeyasingh’s choreography is designed to both embody Egon’s conundrum and emulate his style of work, which gained notoriety for its raw, sexually unambiguous, and un-romanticised presentations of the female body. Staging Schiele’s movement features plenty of body contortion, face distortion and overt sexual play. Three female dancers, Caterina Carvalho, Sunbee Han and Estela Merlos, take the role of Schiele’s ‘loves’, with Dane Hurst bearing an uncanny semblance to Schiele.

The piece begins with Hurst fixated on a pint-sized mirror, as he bends his body, arches his back and splays his limbs, as if the great Michelangelo is tapping his feet, waiting for him to find a ‘model’ position. 

The three female dancers enter the stage altogether, and individually at certain intervals. They wrap themselves in and around each other and Schiele, with a distinct lack of intimacy which Sunbee Han completely nails. The combination of clandestine and sexually ambivalent movement is definitely one way to challenge sexual taboos present even in today’s society. Women are on their backs, legs are spread-eagled, fingers and hands linger around the groin, intent on finding the pleasure area we expect them to touch.

Humorously, the female dancers make gargoyle-like facial expressions as they get into positions, to really disrupt the man-made idea of women making-eyes at those who painted them. I’m pretty sure seducing Hans Holbein was the very last thing on Anne of Cleves’ mind. 

We never quite reach the orgy that Schiele perhaps once imagined, as the movement stops and starts very abruptly. The foursome never look at each other even when they dance a duet. There is indifference and at times an unbearable arrogance. It is volatile in a sense, but there isn’t sufficient engagement between each of them to crank it up to that toxicity; even though the interplay between them did show potential.

With this in mind, the piece could have worked well as a shorter solo, with the female dancers featuring far less… more as elusive figments of Schiele’s tormented imagination, rather than female bodies onstage without a real purpose. But, in Jeyasingh’s defense, this may not have been her intention.

It is a shame the characters are superficial and indulgent – very unlike Schiele’s paintings. Although Staging Schiele does well to bring to the fore ‘the male gaze’ in art, altogether things ended up a bit limp.

Perspective II – Bengi-Sue Sirin

In Shobana Jeyasingh’s eponymous work ‘Staging Schiele,’ we are shown several paint strokes of components that make up Egon Schiele. First and foremost, his predilection for nudity. Almost as soon as he has entered the stage, Dane Hurst (who dances the artist’s role) undresses. It is not just his flesh on show; the three accompanying female dancers, Caterina Carvalho, Sunbee Han and Estela Merlos are minimally costumed, in deceptive nude undergarments and artist-like scraps of clothing.

This is vital to one who is staging Schiele. His most well-known paintings, and those which clearly inspire Jeyasingh’s piece, portray bodies in naked contortions. As well as being essential, nudity lends shadow and sharpness to the bodies, emphasising twists in sockets and turns in the spine. Sunbee Han makes a notably angular Seated woman with bent knee. She captures the remote sultriness of Schiele’s muse with her extraordinary stage presence. 

The second component is intrinsically linked to nudity, because it’s sex. ‘Staging Schiele’ is laden with suggestive poses, lifts, body manipulations whereby Schiele moves his models into shapes, open-mouthed pouts. The women sit in a Graham-esque floor position, holding still and looking past us, as if being assessed by an unliked gynaecologist. A female duet evokes the painting Two Women, with legs splayed in a double-crab position. I wouldn’t say they bring it to ‘life’, however, as I see an assumed pose, not a story. This is where the choreography loses me a little. We get frame after frame after frame, but not much of the metaphorical picture within.  

To be fair, there is a disclaimer in the programme. Jeyasingh writes that ‘’Staging Schiele’ is led by a response to the artist’s paintings and drawings rather than the motives behind them. The nervy landscape of his self portraits, his intriguing double portraits, his frank unsettling depiction of women and relationships are the inspiration.’ Indeed there are all these elements, and more. From my perspective, other components include: a set which resembles prison bars (behind which Schiele spent some time for obscenity); a sense of the macabre, the jarring (heard in the Avant-jarred piano composition, shown in the not-quite-discernible pixel etchings video footage); and unconventional relationships with women (he chose to marry a middle class and therefore palatable woman rather than his lover, Wally).

But I must ask — do components complete a dance work? And by ‘complete’, I mean tie together, round off as a whole, leaving the audience as synaptically sparked as those who were lucky enough to see Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s ‘Broken Wings’ homage to Frida Kahlo, or Wayne McGregor’s ‘Woolf Works’, two of my favourite fine art/dance fusions. There has to be something relatable — or at the very least, associative by removal — about a piece, for it to stimulate those synapses. Schiele’s paintings have it. I am unsure that Jeyasingh’s piece does.

All images: Chris Nash. If you didn’t get to see Staging Schiele, a live version will be shown on Friday 15th November 2019 via Shobana Jeyasingh Dance’s Youtube channel.