Melbourne's most original and exciting folk-opera fabulists are bringing a medieval plague to the Malthouse – the medieval dancing plague. The company is Four Larks, and they're the Malthouse's 2012 Company in Residence. For two weeks in April they 'll be performing their latest immersive symphony, The Plague Dances, in the Tower Theatre.
The dancing plague is just what it sounds like – a contagious, uncontrollable, bodily urge to dance. Recorded instances of contagious dance go right back into the darker reaches of history, but the phenomenon achieved its highest fame during the Middle Ages, at a time when, perhaps not coincidentally, the Black Death was sweeping across Europe.
The best documented example, and the principle inspiration for the Four Larks, happened in Strasbourg, 1518, where over 400 Strasbourgers were "infected" in an epidemic that lasted six months and caused many sufferers to die of dance-related injuries.
Medieval explanations ranged from a saint's curse to hot blood to demonic possession to the effect of a spider's bite. Although there's always been a suspicion that some of the dancers might have been faking contagion as an excuse to kick up their heels, it's only fair to mention that records written at the time often noted a look of fear or bewilderment on the sufferers' face as they succumbed to the dance fever.
So much of what we know about these dances is dependent on who described it, whether of the church, the state or the medical fraternity. This makes the subject ideal territory for the Larks, who specialise in raking over contested folk mythologies, digging out recurring images and themes, and meditating on the process of storytelling.
Although dance plagues began to disappear in the mid-17th century, the Four Larks see plenty of contemporary resonances between our modern relationship with dance and bodily possession and the dimly understood phenomenon of plague dancing. To prove it, Jesse Rasmussen, Mat Sweeney and Sebastian Peters-Lazaro, who are the Four Larks (yes, there are only three of them), sat down with Time Out and suggested five contemporary analogues to the medieval dance mania.
1. Dancing in the streets – whether it's the end of a world war or victory for the local football team, people still take their dancing to the streets in order to affirm a collective identity, spontaneously referencing contemporary cultural precedents such as festival days, parades and mardi gras.
2. Victoria Page – the prima ballerina in Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948), a young woman who doesn't know why she wants to dance, only that she must. The movie was inspired by Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale of the same name, about a girl who becomes possessed by a demonic pair of dancing red shoes. Along with other folk tales like the "Pied Piper of Hamlin", this folk myth was perhaps inspired by actual instances of plague dancing.
3. Raves and Rock Concerts – while it's easy to point to alcohol and drugs at massive dance events as leading to a kind of possession that inspires ravers and rockers to hit the dance floor, there's also no doubt that the pure, self-effacing pleasure of submitting to a synchronous collective, hundreds or perhaps thousands of people all moving to the same beat, is itself powerful alluring.
4. Leland Palmer's waltz, Twin Peaks – a very creepy image in a very creepy television show. The Catholic population of a town like pre-Reformation Strasbourg would have been keenly aware of the all-pervading presence of sin in their lives; dance plagues may represent a bodily expression of that intense psychic pressure. As Rasmussen puts it, "In Twin Peaks, Leland carries a terrible secret which his conscious mind can't yet conceive, but which his body betrays through uncontrollable dancing."
5. The charismatic Christian experience – shaking and writhing as the faithful are overcome with the holy spirit. Although modernity has worn the sharper edges off most contemporary religious experiences, there are still Christian churches, such as certain Pentalcostal congregations, in which the faithful do give uninhibited, or controllable, bodily expression to their faith. But as Sweeny points out, "It can only happen in communities where people believe that it can happen. You can only really experience possession if there's a system of cultural references and beliefs to subconsciously suggest it."