I was sat enjoying a quiet pint with a friend recently, a bright but cold afternoon blew the tail end of winter past the pub window as we talked about the general state of things. His conversation was animated, topical, indignant, informed. Taking a salt and vinegar crisp from the open packet on the table before us, he turned to me and uttered with an air so absolutely casual, a series of words intended to succinctly convey the dim prospect of our situation. ‘We’re trapped in a terminal machine…,’ he said, ‘…and the machine is slowly dying.’
Though the words sounded rehearsed, dumbly melodramatic and certainly derivative of an aesthetic trend in the nihilistic philosophies of apocalyptic culture I knew we’d both been entertaining the past few years, I was startled. The words caught me off guard, seemed to bring a whole body of ideas with their own miasmatic energy crashing into the seemingly staid atmosphere of the real. He was talking about the world. Our world. The same world he and I were sitting quite comfortably within right then and there, eating potato chips and sipping dark glasses of stout. I looked deeply into my pint, its still surface had become the obstinate and portentous veneer of an obsidian mirror.
A prerecorded Gregorian chant hangs noxiously in the air as two wastrel figures swathed in peasant garb – greasy tunics with ragged cowls – stand amidst the rain slicked wastes of trafalgar square intoning an unholy liturgy. Through the distorting cone of a grubby street preacher’s megaphone, they relay a monologue that claims their direct genetic descendence from a mysterious Frau Troffea, instigator of the infamous Strasbourg dancing plague in which a convulsive epidemic saw 400 people dance to states of ecstasy without explanation.
‘We are the virus that has laid dormant for nearly 500 years,’ they proclaim, ‘we are as old as the entire biological history of the earth, and our blood streams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. No amount of debasement or shame is greater than that which we have already endured in suppressing our infections. Our mania or aberration therefore, is not this act we are about perform, but in the routine of our every day lives. We are products of a world that champions consumption and the fulfilment of individual desire over human virtue, and we will end with atestament to this ideology… by consuming ourselves in the best way we know how, through total complicity to our disease…’
The Dancing Plague of 1518 is an ongoing performance by the artists Nicholas McArthur and Robert Molloy Vaughan. It draws upon the potent apocryphal mythology of a mediaeval Alsace epidemic in which a contagious form of dance was unexplainably passed between anguished bodies, leading many victims to exert themselves to a point of fatal exhaustion. In Macarthur and Vaughuan’s rendition, medieval pageantry is conflated with contemporary dance culture, plainsong abutting Daft Punk in an idiosyncratic mix that leads the pair to dance themselves wildly through a series of evocative tableaux; am-dram vignettes of revelation, spiritual transcendence, demonic possession and pained prostration.
I’ve seen this performance many times now. On the streets of numerous cities, or within the temperamental confines of gallery spaces across the country. What interests me about it here, for the purposes of this brief essay, is the course it seems to have taken from the permutation of a singular gesture weighted with all the of the severe urgency of a millenarian act, to a series of slowly unfolding, tentative events; dress rehearsals that fold the contingencies of failure and the variables of participation into the dance itself.
Of course, dance as the cathartic mobilisation of eschatological belief has a rich and tragic history of poignant failures…
In the 18th Century, the visionary spiritual instigator Ann Lee would help to found a matriarchal evangelical sect that proposed ecstatic movement as a conduit to the direct experience of god. Through Shakerism, she was able to implement a communitarian, celibate society that very literally died out in anticipation of the second coming of Christ.
Whilst on January 1st 1889, at the tail end of the forty year colonial genocide of the Native American peoples, Jack Wilson – previously Wovoka of the Paiute – received divine tutelage through a vision that occurred to him amidst a solar eclipse. Wilson had been imparted the knowledge of the Dance of Ghosts, a five-day long votive ritual that would return fallen ancestors to the earth and rid the lands of the white colonising onslaught. Wilson’s conviction that the dance would equip its participants with a kind of spectral armour capable of repelling bullets found it’s most tragic expression in the massacre of 300 Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee.
The Dancing Plague is rife with its own succession of enacted failures told through a series of loosely narrativised stages. After the opening monologue, a convulsive passion seems to assail the bodies of the two performers. They writhe wildly, emulating the symptoms of various diseases, infections and seizures. It’s a contorted choreography that drags limbs relentlessly across asphalt. Movement becomes more animalistic as the pair devolve into rodent-like forms – something they casually refer to as ‘rat-balling’ – testing the perimeters of their performance space against the audience that encircles them, appearing to declare a new wasteland of exile for their collapsing bodies. Deliverance seems to occur at one point in the form of a flour-bag explosion, cumulous plumes of white enshrouding a short-lived emancipation before the pair are set to work in some future life of industrial servitude. Their work affords them another short period of freedom before they turn on each other, each the recipient of a different form of possession; Vaughan plays the self flagellant piously defending against the demonic encroaches of McArthur’s tormenting devil.
I’d interpreted the first few performances of these scenes like I’d been in the presence of a religious wall painting, a kind of idiosyncratic allegorical folklore, vignettes of the forms of damnation and salvation, participation and transcendence, that could potentially be experienced within the milieu of late-capitalism; consumption, pollution and hedonism exacerbated to a state of revelatory balance, the instatement of some primitive post-apocalyptic purity. By my fourth or fifth encounter, I was less sure that things could be bundled up that tidily. Besides the staged failures of the body and the spirit, the performance seemed to be more tolerant of and responsive to its circumstantial failures, less prescriptive and simplistic in its figuration of a global problem and solution. As less fear was felt in the face of technical difficulties coming from an old amplifier, lines hesitated over, choreographies absentmindedly departed from, the dance became a place of speculation in which conflict and communality could be questioned; difficulties that appeared to become embraced by an unfolding and unpredictable testing ground of the chaotic and the carnivalesque.
For one performance, McArthur arrived having left his customised costume on the seat of a train. Luckily, he was able to improvise a suitably tattered and dirty attire with the help of a local woman who provided him with an old leopard print dressing gown, make-up and mollases in order to perform convincingly.
The notion that the modern period is just as riven with superstition as the medieval is given acute form by the pair in the invocation of J.T. Leroy’s maxim that bleach is the holy water of the moderns. Vaughan had been using a mixture of water, arrowroot and food colouring dispensed from an old bleach bottle to simulate the drawing of a magick circle, protection through sanitation. At a recent performance in Cardiff, a group of enthusiastic children commandeered the bottle and took on the impromptu roles of child witch-finders, posing a messy threat to an unsuspecting and terrified audience of heretics.
There have been mild casualties too. A girl recording the event was hit square on in the face by one of the dancers who incorporated his apology and expressions of concern into an improvised choreography without breaking character. I remember seeing countless people sprayed by mouthfuls of black food colouring, intervening community support officers, hecklers and teenagers gathered at the windows of bedrooms overlooking the strange celebrations.
The dance had become less intent on the delivery of a scripted, pre-determined protocol, expanding into a kind of mutative mummers play, the direction of which would be determined by the fluctuations of the very world it sought to confront. What began as the evocation of a supposedly unique and impromptu rapture, seemed to be finding new form through a sensitivity to the slow collapse inherent to the neoliberal malaise that the work sought to address. This isn’t to say that the dance lessened in intensity – knees were still scuffed, bodies bruised etc. – but it had appeared to reroute its focus, away from the simulation of an isolated ecstatic reverie to the pursuit of some synchronous frequency with the steady temporalities of a slow and unfolding collapse.
There’s definitely a segment of The Dancing Plague that ‘gets me every time’. Truly. It occurs after a period of intense exertion, both artists facing each each other in some sort of recuperative bliss. From the spray-painted amplifier that backs the performance comes the opening drum beat and jubilant synth waves of the Human League’s Seconds, a song that recounts through lyrical repetition, the final moments of the life of John F. Kennedy. Much like the assassination conspiracists that rehearse the death throes of the president with each re-wind of the Zapruder tape, The Dancing Plague of 1518 appears to have become caught in a kind of time-slip historical revisionism of the present, rehearsing the death-throes of our own epoch, of economic downturns, pandemics, tidal waves and ideological fundamentalisms. Our capacities for salvation and despair.