This poignant and disturbing piece of dance theatre was inspired by photographs taken in 1894 of patients at the La Salptrire Hospital in Paris, where severe hysteria was first identified as a mental illness.
The show starts with a bang: a breath-taking duet that creates a sense of unease and asphyxiation. Bodies are trapped in lighted cells; some of the dancers/patients have splints, making their movements all the more violent and sharp. The patients all have eccentric obsessions and rituals one tenderly speaks to a set of violin cases as though they were human and could respond. The outbreak of hysteria in Paris’ underground is made even more vivid through the used of music, through the use of violins and the sharp staccato sound of a solo cello.
Most compelling of all is the way the performers’ limbs and bodies move as they roll and crawl across long stretches of paper. Their dancing is often frenzied and harrowing, but it is not without the occasional flicker of humour and, although the depiction of mental illness is extreme, choreographer Fleur Darkin injects the piece with a sense of hope.
The design of the piece is kept simple, the bodies of the dancers and little more, forcing, pushing, and leaning into one another in order to signify the physical constraint they experience. A number of scenes are set in a bath, these episodes are highly charged and unsettling in the extreme; tongs are inserted into fifteen-year-old Augustine and her fellow inmates – leaving their bodies writhing and twisting torturously.
Augustine’s name is repeated throughout the piece, in whispered voices, and the soundtrack also includes snippets of French songs. In addition to Augustine, all the dancers have a story which their bodies to us. Darkin’s piece draws us in to the world of the La Salptrire asylum through use of distorted sounds that envelop the audience, wrapping us up in its haunting story.
The choreography is intricate, creating a sense of magic. It’s a beautiful piece of storytelling combined with dance, and a riveting piece of theatre, however, as usual, exploring big ideas and issues such a s mental illness through dance can pose challenges, and Augustine, as a piece, does meander in places.
Still, Darkin casts a compassionate and empathic eye over this disturbing world, almost at times transforming it into a thing of beauty. The whirling, shrieking and distressed rituals of the dancers are translated into a language we cannot always understand, but Darkin manages to make us feel the emotions behind the dance, and this is a real achievement.