BBC, Artangel and Sadler’s Wells – Jonathan Glazer’s Strasbourg 1518, featuring Pina Bausch dancers

Jonathan Glazer's Strasbourg 1518.© Strasbourg 1518/Academy Films/BBC . (Click image for larger version)
Jonathan Glazer’s Strasbourg 1518.
© Strasbourg 1518/Academy Films/BBC . (Click image for larger version)

Strasbourg 1518
Directed by Jonathan Glazer, commissioned by Artangel and Sadler’s Wells. Produced by Academy Films for BBC Films
20 July 2020
See on BBC iPlayer (for 11 months)

Is this 10-minute film an expression of our inner dance of rage against Covid-19 lockdown, as one film critic surmised? Or is it a virtual hommage to Pina Bausch? Nine dancers, most of them senior members of her Tanztheater Wuppertal company, whirl in a frenzy, slam themselves against walls and slump to the floor in frustration. They often used to do this in Bausch’s miserabilist pieces before she lightened up in her later works.

The title of Jonathan Glazer’s film, Strasbourg 1518, refers to an outbreak of communal dancing, a kind of mass hysteria that overtook the city of Strasbourg, and many other towns, in the Middle Ages. One supposition is that it was a protest against disease, misery and oppression, whereas other theories put the convulsions down to ergotism caused by eating mouldy rye bread. In Italy, the tarantella, or St Vitus Dance, was supposed to have been caused by the poisonous bite of a tarantula spider.

So the concept behind the film appears to be that this kind of panic-stricken dancing has been going on for centuries. It has resurged in our corona-ridden times and will continue during the next plague.

Curiously – coincidentally? – a contemporary dance group, Borderline Arts Ensemble, premiered a work with the same title, on much the same theme, in the New Zealand Festival of the Arts on 12 March 2020, shortly before lockdown.

Borderline Arts are indignant that their title has been taken by a more prestigious enterprise, with its masses of publicity. Glazer is known as the director of Sexy Beast and Under the Skin, as well as of music videos. Strasbourg 1518 was co-commissioned by Artangel and Sadler’s Wells and produced by Academy Films for BBC Films. It was shown on BBC2 and has been released in the United States. The credits at the end of the production roll down at length in alphabetical order. Pink type on a black background makes it hard to distinguish the names of the performers, by which time the jittery, pulsing electronic score by Mica Levi might already have driven you to distraction.

All nine dancers, a few glimpsed for a few seconds only, filmed themselves in bare rooms with white walls. They were instructed to perform their improvised routines at three different times of the day and night. There is no narrative structure – simply their individual responses to the question ‘How are you?’ Because their contributions are intercut and repeated, they appear manic, doing the same things over and again to the point of exhaustion – a recurrent Bausch trope.

One of the featured dancers, Tsai-Chin Yu, who joined Tanztheater Wuppertal in 2008, a year before Bausch’s death, keeps rinsing her hands in a wooden bucket of water. She dips her long hair into the water so that it flails around her and clings to the walls she hurls herself against. The old-fashioned bucket is the only reference to the film’s title, the handwashing to the present plague.

Another long-haired dancer, Ditta Miranda Jasifi, goes berserk in black like an avatar of the first Mrs Rochester, confined in the attic. Andrey Berezin, a Bausch veteran from 1994, whirls his arms and thumps the walls of his attic room just like the puppet Petrushka battering the sides of his cell. A dark-skinned figure, briefly seen, crawls his fingers along a wall as Levi’s soundscore squeals more painfully than nails on a blackboard.

A woman in a blood-red dress and green underpants repeatedly chews the fabric of her skirt, exposing her midriff. A woman in white (Senegalese dancer and choreographer Germaine Acogny, momentarily recognisable) slumps on the floor. Glazer’s intercutting between sequences grows faster and faster, giving the impression of mounting hysteria while Levi’s percussive beats grow louder and faster. Performers pulse and spasm, grunt and collapse. Nazareth Panadero’s presence comes to the fore, conspicuous even without the sound of her distinctive gravelly voice. She’s been there all along, pulling her jacket over her head, laughing madly then hiding her face in her hands. She’s still in the midst of her crazy lady dance when the film cuts to credits. No resolution, no cure.

Strasbourg 1518 has been lauded as ‘head buttingly confrontational’ and an original ‘dance for today’. It isn’t. Familiar Bausch tropes don’t really reflect 1518’s psychogenic mania, which was communal, or today’s experience of isolation, stress and tedium. Choreographers, performers, video makers and editors have been producing much more creative compilations during lockdown, with wit and ingenuity, even though they haven’t benefited from the resources Glazer’s team of collaborators have enjoyed.

Some current suggestions for interesting dance works created or shown in lockdown. Be quick – some may be time-limited…

Scottish Ballet: Indoors – choreographer Sophie Laplane

Royal Ballet: Boléro – choreographer Christopher Wheeldon

ENB School Summer Performance – review/details

Taylor Stanley, New York City Ballet, solo for Pride: Ces noms que nous portons – choreographer Kyle Abraham

Corey Baker Dance: Swan Lake Bath Ballet – choreographer Corey Baker

Birmingham Royal Ballet: Alone I Together – choreographer Kit Holder

About the author

Jann Parry

A long-established dance writer, Jann Parry was dance critic for The Observer from 1983 to 2004 and wrote the award-winning biography of choreographer Kenneth MacMillan: 'Different Drummer', Faber and Faber, 2009. She has written for publications including The Spectator, The Listener, About the House (Royal Opera House magazine), Dance Now, Dance Magazine (USA), Stage Bill (USA) and Dancing Times. As a writer/producer she worked for the BBC World Service from 1970 to 1989, covering current affairs and the arts. As well as producing radio programmes she has contributed to television and radio documentaries about dance and dancers.

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