Strasbourg 1518

July 20, 2020

David Mead

In July 1518, hundreds of citizens of Strasbourg ‘danced’ uncontrollably and apparently unwillingly for days on end. The activity was described as compulsive and frenzied, people apparently losing control of their bodies. A number even died from their exertions before the mania slowly abated, ending just a couple of months later.

What happened in Strasbourg was in fact just one of a number such outbreaks across Central Europe over several centuries. Explanations at the time included being possessed by demons and overheated blood. More recently, bread made from contaminated rye flour has been suggested as a cause. The most widely accepted theory, however, is that it was a form of mass psychogenic disorder brought on by stress and fears (plague, smallpox and syphilis were all afflicting the city around that time).

Whatever the causes, it’s rich material for contemporary dance. Co-Commissioned by Artangel and Sadler’s Wells, and devised and directed by Jonathan Glazer, what the just nine-minute Strasbourg 1518 gives us is a series of interwoven movement monologues. But while each has interest, the brevity of the film and the constant cutting between locations and dancers leaves little time for depth or understanding.

In contrast to the very public nature of what happened in Strasbourg (stages were even established for them), each dancer here, most from Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, is seen in the solitary space that is their home.

Driven along by Mica Levi’s disquieting and insistent score, each dancer moves feverishly, sometimes appearing to claw at the always bare, mostly white walls that hem them in, wanting out but unable to escape both their physically confines and whatever is going on in their heads.

Created via Zoom, Strasbourg 1518 may not have been directly inspired by this year’s events but I couldn’t help seeing references. It does reflection of lockdown and the effect it has on some. The constant returning to a half-barrel of water by one of the women to agitatedly wash their hands is surely another contemporary reference.

Strasbourg 1518 maybe, but just as much, perhaps even more, a dance for today.