In the summer of 1518, in the French city of Strasbourg, a woman walked into the street and began to dance unstoppably, for days on end. Within a week, dozens more had been overcome by the same compulsion. Within a month, some of the hundreds who found themselves imprisoned by this irresistible urge to dance had danced themselves to death.
In 2020, another lone dancer begins to move, standing in the corner of a darkened room. Others join her, each in their own confined space in different countries around the world, locked in repetitive patterns of exhaustion, in movement that is both defiant and despairing. At points they collapse, but rise to dance once more.
Strasbourg 1518 is a 10-minute film by Jonathan Glazer, best known for feature films such as Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin, and for visionary videos for bands such as Radiohead. “What caught my attention was the people of Strasbourg, 500 years ago, dancing in despair,” he says, “and the connection between them and Pina Bausch saying, centuries later, ‘dance, dance or we are lost’.” This all came back to mind as Covid-19 swept the globe.
For some time, the director had been talking about creating a piece of work with the art commissioner Artangel, the organisation behind a multitude of era-defining art projects from Rachel Whiteread’s House to Steve McQueen’s Year 3, about creating a piece of work; when the feature film he was working on was postponed because of the pandemic, he and Artangel’s co-director Michael Morris discussed making something inspired by the Strasbourg story.
When dancers continued to die, the burghers confined them to their homes
The result, created in a record 13 weeks from first conversation to its broadcast by BBC Films, is a response to one moment in time, inspired by another. “The appeal of the story is that it rhymes with our own times,” says Morris. “Our own lockdown, our own epidemic, our own confinement and fear of catching something. There’s a timeless quality about the film. We wanted the viewer to feel the dance has been going on for centuries and it continues after the viewer finishes watching it. There’s a continuum through time. It’s not exactly set in the present, or in the past. It’s ambiguous.”
Strasbourg’s “dancing plague” is in itself an extraordinarily ambiguous and mysterious event. “In terms of strangeness and of understanding the extremes the brain can take us to, it is one of the oddest events I have ever heard of,” says John Waller, associate professor of history at Michigan State University and author of A Time to Dance, A Time to Die, a book on the subject.
Waller says facts on the contagion, which swept through Strasbourg over the month of July, are elusive. Chronicles suggest that “many people died”, and one report puts that at 15 deaths a day. The most detailed accounts come from the minutes of the town council, as the city elders attempted to contain the dancing. At first they consulted physicians who suggested that the best course of action was to let the sufferers get rid of their “overheated blood” by dancing more. So they built a stage in the market place and provided musicians to urge the dancers on. Eyewitnesses reported “the dancers’ frantic movements created the impression of people attempting to keep their legs and feet from burning, as if they were poised above a fire”.
When dancers continued to die, the burghers tried another strategy, confining them to their homes, while simultaneously attempting to purge the city of sin – banning prostitutes, chronic gamblers and habitual drunkards. When even that didn’t work, they arranged for the dancers to be tied to carts and taken to the shrine of Saint Vitus, the patron saint of dance. There they had their feet put into red shoes – a fact that Hans Christian Andersen used when he wrote a story about a girl cursed to dance herself to death – and were blessed with holy oil and water before being walked around the shrine.
After that they appeared to recover, and the outbreak died out. Waller believes that the entire affair was a case of mass psychogenic illness, where people who were convinced they had been cursed by Saint Vitus fell into dissociative states, a kind of trance of possession. They were susceptible to this because of the extreme distress of their lives and oppressive, unsettled social conditions. “This is a period where you have a series of terrible harvests and grain prices are at a generational high,” he says. “You also have a fear of the new disease of syphilis, as well as of the plague, and something called the English sweat, which no one really knows what it was.”
All of which makes the Strasbourg story a rich jumping-off point for Glazer’s film. It’s not about the “dancing plague” any more than it is about the Covid-19 pandemic, but both provide a backdrop for something more allusive and haunting, powered by an insistent, eerie score by Glazer’s regular collaborator Mica Levi.
Appropriately, given its inspiration, the majority of the dancers are drawn from Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, which Morris and Glazer have visited together down the years. They are direct inheritors of Bausch’s belief that it’s not how dancers move, but what moves them that matters. “Their training with Pina was that they just gave and gave,” says Morris. “You feel that in the film.” Others, recruited with the help and advice of Sadler’s Wells, include Botis Seva, the British choreographer, and Germaine Acogny, the pioneering dance-maker from Senegal.
The meetings between the collaborators were organised on Zoom. “All I really did was talk through the idea with them, then send Mica’s music,” Glazer explains. “And [said] if they liked the combination, to think about what they wanted to express, from their rooms basically. A few days later they showed us a run-through and we went from there.” He was bowled over by the results. “I felt privileged to see what they were producing. Each dance was like a monologue,” he says. The final filming took place via iPhones at three points of the day and night; then Glazer set to work in the editing suite.
For cinematographer Darius Khondji it has been “a once in a lifetime” experience. “It was like creating a creature of dance and imagination,” he says. “When I watch it now, it is one piece, one dancer. It was like a living sculpture we were creating every day.”
Strasbourg 1518 is on BBC Two, 20 July, 10pm, then on BBC iPlayer