‘Dancing plague, exquisite leisure and the incidental choreographer’ configures itself as a reflection on the different bodily reactions to mass phenomena, to which people reacted according to their specific historical and social context. The work consists of 3 parts.
1. We begin with “The dancing plague of 1518”, which was a mass hysteria phenomenon in the Middle Ages. Groups of supposedly hundreds of people would frantically dance until they died of exhaustion. The plague and the general ruthlessness and instability that was so present at that time is the most plausible cause of this febrile outbreak. Frau Troffea, a little-known Strasbourg woman, is considered to be the first person who began this dance marathon.
One morning last spring, I felt an urge to revisit this medieval phenomenon and paint it from my current perspective and the state of being “locked down” at home. That is when “the dancing plague of 2020” painting was created.
A public health marathon of this kind is also more visible today than any time before. Saturdays’ anti-coronavirus-restrictions marching masses that are blended with intimidating political agenda, forbidden raves, and just an urge of moving in a crowd proved to be similarly relevant 500 years after the dancing plague.
The big painting depicts a disorder of masses, a disruption of any logical pattern. During the Middle Ages, it was believed that this involuntary dancing was a menace to salvation. Dancing was seen as a loophole, a way to move out of God’s sight. It was also a way to come to terms with the ongoing crises. The painting next to it references the dancing mania as depicted by Pieter Breughel, one of very few painters who revisited this event.
What strikes me particularly about the dancing plague of 1518 is an unusually creative and in some form even psychologically mature (according to medieval standards) response that came from the State. Unlike doctors who came up with a very typical diagnosis of the time of “overheated blood”, instead of prohibiting to perform this viral dance, the State decided to enhance it by inviting musicians to accompany the infected crowds with live music and even erecting a stage for them in the center of Strasbourg. The crazed dancers were escorted to these designated locations in the belief that by maintaining frantic motion they would shake off the sickness.
Toes dance video
Built as a choreographic piece, it is a silent narration of the hypothetical witnesses of the 1518 event. This video is not only showing Frau Troffea’s feet but also other citizen’s toes who are being gradually infected with choreomania. Feet are the main protagonists of the video, by interacting with each other, they retell the story of mass hysteria from their perspective.
Feet that were bloody, blistered, and swollen played a central part in this dance disease. After nothing seemed to be a cure, the state came up with the “curse of the red shoes” hypothesis. All the dancers were given a cross and a pair of red shoes which had been sprinkled with holy oil. People sprinkled holy water on crosses and red shoes in the name of the Saint and that supposedly put an end to this medieval rave.
The music piece was composed by Peter Joyce, who kindly agreed to collaborate on my project. It pays homage to the music of the time of the Dancing Plague of 1518, while maintaining the modern context of the work itself. To do this Peter Joyce used the theme of the Chanson ‘Adieu mes Amours’ by Josquin Des Prez one of the most important composers of the time who, in 1518 was living only a few hours away from where the Dancing Plague took place. Assigning one note of the theme to each section of the film, Peter then organised the musical material in the form of a Isorhythmic motet, a very important compositional technique of the time, where the same rhythmic structures are repeated in imitation and layered on top of each other to create a complex but well structured polyphony which steadily builds in density and energy. To create the melodic and harmonic material , rather than using the Church Modes of the renaissance, he used certain modes of Modern Jazz to correspond with the sections of the film, creating a more complex and colourful sound world.
2. Gymnastics (1920)
Our second station is 1920 in the Soviet Union. I have always been fascinated in the daily practices of leisure and have investigated them for this series of paintings. Stumbling upon a massive archive of random photos in which people freely form gymnastic pyramids while having a picnic, during a house party, or at a factory, served as the starting point for my interest. Even though human pyramids seem spontaneous, they reflected an influence of the Soviet ideology even in areas such as leisure. Gymnastics, as such, and any mass sport formations were a definition of the “proper” free time spent.
“A human pyramid at feasts table” is the biggest painting of the following series. It showcases a pyramid that arose on a dining table, slowly falling apart but being surrounded by uninterrupted dinner at the same time. The term “застолье” in Russian describes heavy food feasts that usually last for days, where a fit gymnastic formation like that seems out of context.
The second painting is titled “When wolves descend from the mountains we will still be doing gymnastics” points to the agenda of the uninterrupted body cult.
These often shaky and dilettante formations, a massive common body, were subconsciously praising the culture of collectivism and patriotism. A volunteer activity of mass leisure that was curated by the state is also perfectly visible in huge synchronised sports parades or Olympiads.
The third part of the historical timeline takes place in 2020 on TikTok.
I allude to a parallel “mass choreography” of our times, such as infectious social media participation. In today’s era, is an influencer a modern substitute for that unknown woman from Strasburg in 1518 who first took to the street and began the outbreak? Is this mass dancing mania spread through social media and influencers? Or do we spread it when we begin to adapt to ever-changing trends? Is it precarity of the unknown or too quick adjustment to being watched, that what structures our new choreography?
On the wall, you can see the merging of two faces as the video is screened on top of the painting.
It is based on different TikTok dance trends, where people use their facial expressions to create countlessly re-performed face choreography, as well as the TikTok app which distorts the facial appearance.
The title of the piece refers to the incidental choreographer. What I mean by that is the way specific responses to extreme conditions became organised spontaneously as a coordinated mass choreography.
When I’m thinking about the social phenomena that I’m describing in these works, I’m reminded of what physicists call a “phase transition”. These are processes that are completely determined by the conditions of their environment, but at the same time, they follow no explicit overall guidance. For that reason, they can invoke a sense of paranoia on the one hand and celebrate it wrongly as a complete spontaneity on the other. I would like to put a cautious path and take into account both. Therefore it’s neither organised from above nor spontaneous.
I wish to encompass a whole range of spectators’ senses including sight, hearing, tangible and spatial perceptions. My way of displaying these phenomena are by painting, video, and audio layering of different media. Extracting and re-staging stories from history you can follow a manifestation of various bodily movements and responses to the external climate of particular eras.
Photo documentation: Kathrin Hanga
Music composed by Peter Joyce