Choreographer and Director: Shobana Jeyasingh
Representations of female combatants in history are few and far between, with even fewer becoming the subject of an entire show. Shobana Jeyasingh’s Clorinda Agonistes Clorinda the Warrior explores the poetic figure of a female Saracen warrior fighting against a Crusader before a new second act takes her into contemporary warfare. Jeyasingh’s production, staged at Sadler’s Wells over two nights, has plenty of ambitious technicalities but dilutes the agency of the female fighter.
The first half of Clorinda Agonistes Clorinda the Warrior is a long pas de deux in which the titular character in eleventh-century garb fights a single Crusader (Jonathan Goddard) while an operatic narrator outlines the connection between these two people. Taking elements from Torquato Tasso’s original poem and Claudio Monteverdi’s seventeenth-century operatic scene, Jeyasingh uses only one voice to tell the story and changes the dynamic between the Crusader and Clorinda (Jemima Brown), making her the object of his unrequited love across the battlefield.
It should be a powerful scene with the potential for great jeopardy as the omniscient audience, seeing what the characters do not, is taken through the stages of battle to the emotional and spiritual finale. Jeyasingh choreographs their interaction well with large fight shapes, tussles, lifts and lunges that look convincing enough, although their balletic root never quite gives their conflict the same urgency and danger as other shows to feature war-like violence such as Ivan Michael Blackstock’s Traplord.
But this epic battle looks quite lost on the vast Sadler’s Wells stage, particularly with the Narrator (Ed Lyon) purposefully involved in the rhythm of the dance that cuts into the flow of their interaction. It is a deliberate choice to remove the wider context of what their fighting is for and any suggestion of the love the Crusader feels until Clorinda is unmasked. With no sense in Merle Hensel’s oddly clinical and unconnected set design of the atmosphere of armies and battles, the fight for religion and the occupation of land happening by the walls of Jerusalem, it is difficult to connect to this first act.
That alienation is only compounded as the newly slain Clorinda is taken to a new spiritual existence in a modern version of warfare in which her spirit evolves into a twenty-first century quartet of dancers. These women are also in the midst of an unspecified Middle Eastern conflict with fragmented screens showing cityscapes of ruined buildings, rubble and destruction.
But where Clorinda was a warrior in sobriquet and in deed, these modern women are the largely passive victims of a war that is beyond them. There is no opponent represented on stage against which they can put up a fight and instead Jeyasingh’s choreography is filled with gestures of supplication, montage scenes of women falling, clutching babies, reacting, wailing and collapsing – what has happened to the agency that Clorinda had to decide her own fate? A problem exacerbated by the pre-recorded female singer who replaces the very present Lyon – why is a male vocalist the only one performing in person?
The introduction of a cameraman and boom operator makes even less sense in this context and, somehow, they double for the enemy against which the women react. So, like its predecessor, Act Two just cannot generate a wider sense of thousands of people at war. Jeyasingh includes the odd gesture of fist-waving defiance and mechanised warfare is far removed from the one-on-one combat of medieval engagement, but what these two pieces are saying about women in warfare seems confused.
With possible technical problems at the Press performance meaning only snatches of the surtitles seemed to be visible, Clorinda Agonistes Clorinda the Warrior gets a bit lost in its concept and loses the power of the female fighter along the way.
Runs until 10 September 2022