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 1914-1918 war and remained open to treat victims of the flu pandemic.


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


At its height, the pandemic 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 of Sunderland believed the outbreak was due to bad bacon or ‘war bread’ – a bread with reduced wheat, bulked out with oats, rye and barley. The 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 World War 1. 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 and remembering.”


Jenny Waldman, Director of 14-18 NOW, said: “We are proud to commission Contagion as a highlight of our final 14-18 NOW season, in which we continue to engage people in the centenary of the First World War through the lens of art. Shobana Jeyasingh’s new work marks 100 years since one of the deadliest disasters in human history with a powerful exploration of the 1918 pandemic through movement.”


Contagion will be a standing performance, suitable for those 12 and over, and audience members will be invited to decide what to pay after the end of the performances.


Helen Green, Head of Performance for Sunderland Culture, which delivers Sunderland Stages, said: “Contagion explores the irony that, while human warfare raged in the trenches, a far deadlier enemy was waging war within and against the human body itself.”


A workshop inspired by Contagion and hosted by Shobana Jeyasingh Dance will reveal how the work’s choreography was inspired by the tragedy. The free work, organized by the Cultural Spring, will be in St Luke’s Church Hall, Merle Terrace, Sunderland on Wednesday, October 17 (6pm to 8pm). For more details go to www.theculturalspring.org.uk


Running alongside Contagion is Spanish Flu Now, a new web project which imagines the impact of a global pandemic breaking out today. Using Instagram, it tells the stories of six characters, each with its foundations in historical truth – but retold using selfies, memes, trends, hashtags and emojis.


Sunderland-based photographer Iam Burn has created the character of cycle courier Nathan whose story can be found on www.spanishflunow.com and on his Instagram account nathan_bikelyfe_sfn.



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