The Dancing Public interview with Mette Ingvartsen
Interview with Mette Ingvartsen on 18.09.2021 on The Dancing Public at PACT Zollverein, Essen.
Bojana Cvejić When does the idea of The Dancing Public date from? What prompted you to investigate the phenomena of choreomania and dance marathons?
Mette Ingvartsen The idea came with the title – The Dancing Public – about five years ago, when I felt it was time for me to make a piece that would entail dancing together with the public. This took me to dance marathons from the 1930s in the U.S., but the more I read about them I realized they couldn’t form the core of my interest. Back in the 1930s during the Great Depression, poor people were ready to risk their life dancing in a competition for a money award. My wish was to bring people together through dancing in a physical space – so a social phenomenon where dance becomes a tool that enables an experience of collectivity. It is as much about joy and ecstasy as it is about pain and exhausion.
The initial idea was ‘on ice’ for a long time because I wasn’t convinced of the dancing marathon. Then I came across the ‘choreomania’, also referred to as dancing epidemic in the middle ages, which attracted me for the fact that it combines several elements I wanted to explore: dancing in public space, dance as a social gathering, and the excess of dancing movements that are relentless and uncontrollable, and which spread like a contagion. Movement travels through bodies in parties and in general, when people dance for pleasure. But in the choreomanias dance was associated with an uncanny force, something unknowable that propels movement beyond control, and I wanted to look at that. This is how the creation began…
The performance brings two historical narratives that link up the dance outbreaks, such as dancing epidemics (also called the “dancing plague”!) and dance marathons with periods of crisis, like the plague in the Middle Ages which was followed by floods and famine and the Great Depression in the 1930s. How is this mass dancing in excess or madness intricated with the circumstances of social crisis?
The correlation between dancing manias and socio-political crises is only one of the interpretations of these dance outbreaks. A crucial source in my research was Kélina Gotman’s book Choreomania: Dance and Disorder (Oxford 2018), in which Gotman traces the history of the discourses on dancing manias. And I was interested in studying how our understanding of dancing manias and their causes evolved in history. For example, one rationale highlighted the demonic possession – convulsions were thought to be caused by demons that haunted the bodies from inside. This story is steeped in the Christian worldview which was predominant at the time, and that is certainly not my perspective. But as Gotman discusses in her book, there were many other possible explanations that surfaced from the Middle Ages until today – in chronicles, historical and medical documents. Dancing was believed to be a way of keeping the black pest out or it came about in the midsummer celebrations that got out of hand. The variety of explanations shows the phantasmatic core of dancing manias. For example, in the case of the dancing mania in Aachen in 1374, which I studied in detail, two years after a flood devastated the region, destroying crops and livelihoods. In my mind, famine and fear for your survival would be enough to explain the convulsions and why people took to dancing in such a relentless manner. Strangely enough, these convulsions and dancing would spread through bodies and persist sometimes for days and weeks, but once they were over they would not leave the bodies with an ongoing illness.
Something got exorcised, expelled.
Yes, it would be over. Dancing manias came in periodic fits, and did not become long-term pathologies. One other discursive thread was mass psychogenic illness.
They are also referred to as sociogenic illness or epidemic hysteria. There was no organic basis of infection, the dancing spread by the imitation of movement from body to body. Apart from sociopolitical crises you speak of, you also mention a psychopathological register, namely, hysteria, which as an explanation dates from the 19th century psychiatry and has been contested by, among others, feminists.
Dr. Charcot, who was the head of the asylum La Salpêtrière in Paris, developed an interest in choreomania as he found it was connected to the movements he observed in his hysteric subjects. This is of course remarkable because hysteria as an illness with an organic basis has been disqualified and written off the list of pathologies. However, at that time, hundreds of doctors were observing Dr. Charcot’s patients who were giving them a ‘performance’ of sorts every week. Some patients got very good at performing hysteric attacks – at least, that is what I think from a feminist perspective. Feminists have shown that women’s bodies were pathologized by the doctors’ gaze saying “because you have this condition you also behave like this”. The doctors’ diagnosis transferred into their behavior, and the patient fulfilled the doctor’s expectation. Prior to Charcot, the 16th century Swiss doctor Paracelsus was the first to separate choreomania from religious pathology and superstition. He advocated several explanations, from it being a physical kinetic disorder, to an illness of the imagination, or a result of suffering from having too hot blood.
In this piece I try to retrace this history of the discursive transformations of the dancing manias by paralleling it with a kind travel through performative forms. At first, I’m telling this history as a story, which then becomes a spoken word poem with music. Later it transforms into songs. There is also a shift from a straightforward narration to a more theatrical manner of embodying the history for the reason that some of the forms of choreomania were theatrical or performative, like hysteria.
This solo could be approached from two perspectives operating at the same time. One is the invitation that becomes a situation of dancing: from storytelling you incite us into dance in the course of the entire evening. The other perspective pertains to the construction of the body that shakes and convulses, embroiled in a state that would ordinarily be described as irrational, between joy and exhaustion, excess and madness: a dance ‘craze’! What is your interest in the body? Your dance doesn’t hint at the body of expressionist dance which bears some relations to the irrational historically – with the exception of Valeska Gert’s iconic grotesque. Gestures prevail instead, such as convulsion, laughter, itching, and barking, which could be found back in the repertory of gestures in dancing manias. Imagine nuns barking or meowing. How did you come to develop this material?
I’ve reimagined these gestures from the descriptions of the dancing manias, in particular the accounts of Dr. Hecker who elaborated a detailed account of the vivid and jerky movements. Also, I found other accounts of choreomanias where nuns were barking or meowing, going into momentary states of contagious madness. What interests me in this is what happens to the body in moments of crises, and the bodily excess that so easily follows from it. Besides, in the piece there is also the question of why people go to party? This also represents a need for a kind of excess. I remember myself as a youngster, I had a great need for expenditure of my energy which also came with the desire of being in a situation where the regulations would be temporarily suspended. There is a long tradition of festivities – from the Greeks and the Romans to later carnivals – as events designated for experiencing a kind of freedom from moral constraints and regulations. By contrast, the dancing manias aren’t organized moments of excess, but come as eruptions when the body can no longer refrain from movement. And that is crucial for me, because it indicates a response to a societal or political condition. I don’t know if I would call it repression, or a feeling of having had enough. And what would trigger such a release? For example, during the corona lockdowm I felt something similar in my own body, something like: “I can no longer stand this confinement, staying put and in isolation, I need to move and be with other people.” I can also relate to the situation of womens’ bodies in the past, the repression of their sexuality and of their right to express themselves and act alongside men. It is not difficult to imagine why and how a need for excessive movement could come forth. In dancing manias it wasn’t only women who were convulsing, but also children and men. Yet tarantella, an Italian form of dancing mania was often danced by women, backed up with the story about the poisonous spider bites that could be cured by dancing. Now, what is so interesting here is that the dance is both the symptom of an illness and its remedy. This says something about the regenerative capacity of the body to overcome different forms of oppression and unfreedom. Sometimes it happens in forms of sublimation – as in carnivals and parties – and othertimes it manifests in what resembles madness or has an uncontrollable element to it.
Looking at who the dancing subjects were, could we say that in dancing manias there is an element of protest against containment? Women oppressed by the patriarchy especially in the authority of Roman Catholic Church, but also commoners subjugated to aristocracy limiting their access to land. I’m thinking of the famous Bruegel’s painting of peasants in a dance craze. What you are saying about dance being both the symptom of an illness and its cure speaks of an operation you have mounted in many works. By subjecting oneself to a set of constraining movements in excess, one induces another state that will be able to release you from the initial constraint by bringing you to a higher level of focus and capacity. For example, spinning and trance-like repetitions in your previous pieces, solos and group choreographies alike (21 Pornographies, All Around, Moving in Concert, also 7 pleasures). Dramaturgically, in The Dancing Public, the shift from narration to dancing, or from theater to concert, brings a move from representation to intense embodiment.
I relate this to tarantella, which is one of the many cases I studied but finally didn’t include; the idea of it is somehow incorporated in the work. I have read accounts of the Tarantella that go as follows: one person goes through excessive convulsions to cure from poisonous spider bites while other people are there to support and witness this process. What interests me here the function this individual healing has within the community, and the effect it propels in the bodies watching. This mechanism is also something I explore within the performance, by being the one who subjugats herself to intense (and perhaps curative) states. One question of the piece is: What kinds of rituals of bodily excess can actually deliver us from the current state of crisis that we are in? For me the performance is a response to that. My body is a kind of vessel, and that’s similar to my other solos where I think of myself as a vessel for history. Even though it is a solo, there is nothing in it that is about me personally. My body conveys other historical bodies, or better still, how the understanding of our bodies has changed. Let’s take barking for example, what is that? Something one isn’t supposed to do in public, or else you’ll appear as a mad person. I like to work with these ‘limit-states’ bordering on madness, because there is a potential freedom in that. Of course, this means walking on a thin line where you risk falling on the other side into madness from which there might be no return, so I am not idealizing that state! In the dancing manias, people sometimes died out of exhaustion, they were tormented and in pain, and it surely wasn’t only joyful.
The limit-states enable us to experiment with norms and normality, to ask “is it possible to exceed the normality of the body that most of our behavior is compliant with”? Mine as well. In daily life I’m not rebellious, I put on a mask of a good citizen, following rules, yet I also find it repressive having to follow all rules all the time. This work allows me a certain freedom to experiment with being in liminal states and outside of social norms in public, something I also invite the audience to do. There is something political to experience in the present: how do you relate to the excessive state produced by regulations, restrictions and confinement? Do you reject it, do you feel with it or feel moved by it? I don’t know yet what it is that people watching the performance will experience. Will they attach to the convulsive, painful and exhaustive movements or rather move along with the celebratory or participatory sections, where the audience can choose if they actually want to dance along?
The pandemic entailed governments declaring emergency – a kind of state of exception with imposed corona-related measures of social conduct in public space. With the protraction of the crisis, at a certain moment the exceptional situation starts to be normalized, and the social norms and habits regulating contact between the bodies in public has changed imperceptibly, perhaps for good. You began creation of this before the pandemic: how was it to anticipate the confinement that The Dancing Public seems to protest? What do you think of the capacity of art (in general) to temporarily suspend the rules of public conduct?
I did start this project before the pandemic, and in the beginning it came from my intellectual curiosity and fascination with the phenomenon of dancing manias. However, when the pandemic began, I felt it became more relevant and even urgent to raise these questions in lockdown. I remember saying to myself: “I can feel the excess, frustration and pain, I can feel all of that in my body, and I am sure I am not the only one.” So I started making this piece during the pandemic with the hope that the situation would end and the regulations be undone, and then I realized that it was probably not going to happen like that.
Now I think that art, and The Dancing Public in particular, are also about how to reconnect socially, or to the social space we have been lacking lately, how to dare to dance together. We still need to comply with the social distancing and we will only see during the performances what this entails. It is important to insist on the forms of gathering that are now forbidden, like clubs that reopened in some countries, but not in this part of Germany. I anticipate the piece will produce a friction thanks to the new social norms, even in places where the restrictions have been loosened, it will always feel like moving on the edge.
The Dancing Public deals with the condition: how can we bring people back together, and not risk a corona outbreak. The fact of coming back together isn’t unproblematic, it is something we need to work on. If art is a good place to experiment, then a performance could perhaps momentarily be used as a testing ground for how we are going to be social or party together in the future.
Now something completely different: the historical cases of dancing manias that you are working on are situated in this region, in the heart of Western Europe, from Aachen to Strasbourg, including Belgium. If the movement spread by contagion, how did the information travel in the 17th century?
The dance epidemics traveled like pilgrims, from streets to cities, even across the borders. Besides this region, there were other cases recorded outside of Europe, like for instance in Madagascar, which I didn’t select for this performance. At one point, I thought: “where is my body located?” I decided to work with the context I belong to, now that I am based in Belgium, I deal with the history which is in proximity to where I live. The stories will resonate with my body and with the others living around me. However, when I consider the dance marathons in the 1930s in the US which are not European I am well aware that these are still proposing a Western-centric frame, but I chose to include those materials because of how the project emerged, with the marathons as an important source of inspiration.
You are engaging with European history in a critical way. Now to think again about the bodies of the audience: you initially wished to create a situation wherein the audience will dance. In spoken theater, language is the shared link between the performance and the audience thanks to which the spectators can be addressed and potentially respond or talk back. In dance, this is different, we share the bodies but not the physical language of dancing, therefore, the convention of theater dance is that it is observed in silence and from distance, the audience will not ‘dance back’ at you. In this piece, you are inciting them to dance while speaking about dance epidemics, contagion based on imitation of movements. Is kinaesthetic empathy the poetic basis for expecting a dancing response from the spectators? The scientific theory about mirror-neurons responsible for kinaesthesia has been contested, yet the poetic or choreographic ground for it remains. In your previous pieces, for example It’s In The Air (with Jefta van Dinther), kinaesthesia is a prominent experience thanks to audience sharing the same beat. In The Dancing Public, the rhythm keeps us in time together. Is that how you draw into dancing and synchronize the audience?
Indeed, the choice of having music underscore the entire performance has to do with the question “How do I propose to people to get into a groove?”. We construct a musical space as a container for the experience of social togetherness. When I speak of contagion and how dance spread from one body to another, I am not saying “please, dance with me” but I am indirectly offering this possibility, that we could surrender to contagious movement. We imagine a forest as a club, with platforms on which I am standing, like with go-go dancers, and the audience is down on the ground. But in the Middle Ages, theater for the commoners happened on improvised stages in public squares; we worked with this idea and our space is not unlike a public square. We are trying to construct a feeling of a public square occupied by the people; people are inside the space of this theater, they are included by attending it from being in the midst of it, and not outside, from an external point of view and distance.
When I go into fully-fledged dancing, it is actually a mixture between convulsive motions and the gestures you mentioned earlier, like itching, laughing, and Tourette syndrom. Several movement histories run through these mixtures, yet there is a strong reference to party dancing, also because it is part of my own history. I used to dance hip-hop and perform in clubs from the age of 13 and then later throughout my youth I partied a lot. This ties together popular cultures of music and dancing. I am performing the movement that anyone could do, except that I am doing this excessively to the point that it might be hard to believe it: “what is she doing now, laughing or itching for?” The kinaesthetic link rests on a strong sense of recognizability of the movements from everyday life, with that difference that they are now taken to a more intense, excessive level.
Speaking of music and partying, you are also traveling through different musical genres that carry a world of their own. From spoken word, as a kind of rapping or slam poetry, to singing in dark industrial music. A certain form of intensity is carried through the shifting situations that the spectator undergoes.
I didn’t have the intention to mix different genres, this isn’t how I usually work. I think it came from the music I chose to dance to, and then subsequently arranged for the whole soundtrack. For example, when I speak of dance marathons in the 1930s I use a heavy and dark sound of an industrial dance music track. The whip-like beat from the depth supports the image of these strange dance events in which bodies moved so slowly, they were exhausted and couldn’t even keep up, their knees touching the ground…
In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, dance competitions were organized with the goal of winning a money price for the couple who could keep up the longest. The couples would dance endlessly, and they could eat, drink, even shave while dancing. They weren’t allowed to sleep or rest more then 10-15 min per hour. Their dance was a spectacle for which an audience paid to see who could endure the longest. A dance contest without any energy, sometimes intersected with spectacular staged events, while the real participants were barely lifting their legs. Men and women could hardly keep themselves on their feet. You had to keep your feet going and the moment your feet would no longer be in a stepping pattern you would be out of the contest. Or if your knees dropped to the floor and stay there for more than five seconds you would be out of the game. So I am wondering “why on earth would people do this?” Was it poverty which motivated a contest for a financial award? Or was it a desire to be part of a larger collective event? Among the dancing couples, there were people who took up the challenge of dancing for weeks. But others were there probably for the food and shelter they were given while dancing. A dark spectacle and a weird form of entertainment, as it included desperation and craving in a moment of deep financial crisis. When someone died from doing it, the marathons were forbidden.
If we look at the history of the idea of social gathering by dancing, it has evolved from the function of creating dissent and disorder in the Middle Ages when it was persecuted to choreomania as psychopathology of women in the 19th century to the 20th century when organized mass dancing becomes a social choreography used to aesthetically rehearse a variety of political ideologies (from nationalism through socialism to Nazi parades). What is left of dancing manias today? Dance as a form of social gathering is present in youth culture. What is the political potential of social gathering in dance today? People gather to protest in mass, but they don’t dance – they walk or sit, occupy.
It would be interesting to look at the history of the rave culture, which also started as a clandestine movement… Anything that gets forbidden and is forced to be clandestine has a political potential by showing the limits of permissible behavior. Rave culture has been labeled as ‘apolitical’ but one could look for the political significance underneath the need for bodies to move in techno.
Is it a symptom of relief or escape? Because the experience involves also drugs.
Drugs are part of its clandestinity. If we think of the present times, I register depression and repression in the bodies that don’t gather or talk. Dancing and celebrating are important, not only in themselves, but also because they bring us out of depression, putting us in contact with each other.
There are many cultures and communities that use dance as an expression of their difference or minority status. Take ballroom or cyphers in hip-hop, whenever it is not yet commercialized. These are, for me, manifestations of active politics (…)
Returning to your solo, I want to acknowledge that it is impressive for me to watch you perform something you constructed in most of its elements by yourself. You wrote the text rhyming a poem; and you made the music track, which was then arranged by Anne van der Star, while Minna Tiikkainen, with whom you collaborated on so many works, designed the lights. What is the place of solos in your oeuvre? You seem to alternate between solos and group choreographies.
Solos give me time to experiment: when I work alone I feel I have all the time in the world. Working with big groups I am pressed with time, forced to make pieces in short time periods – these are unfortunately the economic conditions we are in.
Working alone is also important for me as I need my choreographic ideas to pass through my own body before I work with other people. I am not the choreographer who works from the outside. I first need to know what it is that I am proposing. Additionally, because what I often want to do is excessive, I cannot ask others to be involved in it before I’ve put my own body on trial, testing fragility and limits. As you know, I’ve also worked on sexuality where personal boundaries are renegotiated. Therefore, I need to know myself what I am dealing with and what kind of emotional response it will bring forth, in me, in other performers and finally in the audience. This time the material is also very exhausting. I get high from dancing this solo. Sometimes I am so energized that I cannot fall asleep until late in the night.
Lastly, I am a person who reads a lot and begins creation often by engaging with socio-political questions. Thus, solo is a format in which I can accommodate the ideas stemming from my readings and thought with physical desires I don’t always know where they come from.
Might it also be that it’s not only the ethical test that makes you embody things but it’s also how you learn? One way of studying dancing manias is to probe them with your own body. That is an empirical mode of learning, also specific to dance. I remember how you embodied a critical view on the anthropocene by making performers instruments of animating objects and materials (in The Artificial Nature Project).
Everything I read about these excessive states of the body was interesting and nice, but I realized I couldn’t know anything about them before I understood how they felt. For example, the difference between involuntary and controlled movements. The question these dancing manias or mass hysteria posed was how much they were self-induced, and to what extent they were merely happening to people; what was beyond and what was within the control and the will of the bodies. For instance, what happens when you turn until you are about to fall? I think learning resides in my need to explore what happens in my body when I push it out of balance to a limit?
This justifies the term of research, because you are gaining a corporeal level of knowledge by using your body as a vessel for this experiment.
And then, in the second instance, I am interested in the performance as the moment of sharing these findings before and together with an audience immersed in a space constructed by light, sound and music. Finally, these manias entailed collective experience. Stepping inside this performance, people face the question “Do I want to move? Do I want to be part of this? Or do I want to leave? Do I dare to let myself go and start dancing in front of the others who might not be dancing? How do we behave together as a group?” These questions have a lot to do with the sociality that we are prepared to engage with. In this way, The Dancing Public relates to 69 positions where the audience had to negotiate their participation.
It is always a mystery to me why a collective experience takes off into becoming something amazing or why sometimes it doesn’t work at all. This is something I would like to experiment with in theater.
Regarding the participation of the audience, this performance is divided in two blocks. While in the first, the audience is inside a performance I am creating for them, where they can choose to dance along with me but don’t have to do it, the second block is a kind of extension, an open-ended party which is in their hands; it is up to their bodies.
It will be interesting to see if the audience will appropriate the space in the current circumstances. I sense a shared need from people to exercise ‘their right to paaa-rty.’ That used to be part of our everyday life.