You can see the fascination of the ‘dancing plagues’ of 16th century Europe for people in general and choreographers in particular, especially in times of contagion. Outbreaks would start with a single person overtaken by frenzied convulsions, then ‘infect’ the population with a dancing mania that could last for days on end.
Simona Deaconescu’s CHOREOMANIACS narrates this history, and subsequent attempts to explain it – but only on the verbal level, spelled out on the voiceover and by the dancers themselves.
On the performative level, nothing could be further from this mania. The voices are robotic, devoid of feeling. The five dancers wear modern, not medieval clothes. And instead of jitters and spasms, they slowly hinge elbows, slide feet and swivel arms as if they were hydraulic mechanisms, programmed into repeated loops or criss-crossed into lattices of pistoning limbs.
The mismatch between subject and style is quite a puzzle: clearly set out, intriguing to work through, frustrating to work out.
Looking telescopically back into the 16th-century epidemic of choreomania, Simona Deaconescu contrasts textual historical accounts, uttered by the five dancers, with a non-illustrative choreographic response to them. While the historical narrative describes extrovert and uncontrolled movement, the choreography depicts a contemporary version of choreomania through controlled, precise and minimal gestures that corporeally negate these historical accounts about the body. The choreomaniacs also sometimes embody the historical facts by opposing small and pedestrian movements, often performed in slow motion, or through repetitions that insist on their duration and are empowered by the beat of electronic music. Their repetitive insistence becomes part of the obsession of contemporary choreomania that contaminates each other’s bodies.
Mirroring the current pandemic into the spontaneous epidemic of the past, Deaconescu prompts us to question the fiction of the historical account and whether dance is a sort of a virtuosic choreomania straddling discipline, containment, blasphemy and freedom.
Five street-clothed people eye each other from chairs. Voiceover places us in Strasbourg, 1518. Graphic narration chops a dance mania epidemic into 7 phases, from patient 0 to city-wide anarchy; movement is emotionless. Gestural solos, dry and decisive, are dictated by diction of voice, not semantics, which chronicle people plagued with fervent dance hysteria.
Mechanical muscle control is pedantic and points aren’t made to be elaborated. Groups form as bodies tack together, jigsawed joints throb rhythmically, a perfunctory page turn. Slow-motion group transitions stretch into agonising trances, the spread of insanity burns and brews.
A joyless disco of bulletproof poker faces ends a deliberate journey. Glued to linearity, it enslaves the audience. An ugly epidemic, understood only by absurd theories of demonic voids in women and worse, is sanitised into pristine order, as necessary and automated as propaganda. Only dystopia correlates 1518’s mass delirium with the antiseptic sarcasm of Choreomaniacs.
Based on the dance epidemic of 1518, Romanian choreographer Simona Deaconescu stages CHOREOMANIACS in a contemporary setting: five chairs. The seven-phase story is recorded with transitions announced by five dancers in contemporary clothes.
The story stays neutral until dancers start moving. Hearing about patient zero, we see one dancer on all fours gradually waving her neck. Hearing of the forced departure of dancing people, we see the dancers in diagonal line moving bit by bit with connected forearms up and down. In the end, the dancers are back to their seats, as in the beginning.
The movement creates a sensory dimension to the voice-over, enhancing our empathy towards those distant people. In addition, this 40-minute performance recalls our recent pandemic experience while sadly ignorant people are always present, either attributing dance to hot blood or believing vaccines can make women infertile.
‘14th of July, 1518. A dance epidemic just started in the centre of Strasbourg’.
Nobody knows what caused the plague, so let’s stick with the facts. Five dancers face each other in brutal silence until a voiceover unfolds the event: hundreds were infected by a nonstop, frenetic dance that possessed their bodies. Yet what happens on stage contrasts with the narrative: through spoken word and repetitive movement, dancers alternate between solos and collective shapes that combine rigid head-shaking and slow steps. Repetition and minimalism draw the history of a body that reacts to the delirious dance the other way around; through the tension caused by judgements or conventions about what movement should or should not look like.
CHOREOMANIACS opens up a question that might be linked with the history of dance itself: is a new, disruptive movement considered a disease?