Jonathan Glazer’s latest project is, amongst other things, a prime example of what the creative mind can get up if left alone for a few month. The performers of Strasbourg 1518 were filmed in isolation, in sparse sets optimised for a foreboding sense of emptiness, exacerbating their separation all the more when juxtaposed against each other.
The choreography is striking and, of course, unsettling, emphasising the limits of the human body and pushing just a little too far beyond them, and it works in tandem with Mica Levi’s jarring musical accompaniment and occasional riffs of birdsong to build a tension disproportionate to the viewer’s assumption that, given the isolation of each actor, the opportunities for plot-building are sparse. The impression is of witnessing something that nobody should be watching, as the dancers shake off any artifice and, with it, any hint of what might happen next, triggering an uncomfortable admixture of curiosity and terror. As light and dark slip into one another and movements are sped up, paused, and repeated compulsively, internal senses of time and space lose any frame of reference or semblance of control, and the performers start to blend with their environment – a shift that arrives almost as a relief to the viewer.
The film’s title refers to a case of dancing mania (or so-called “dancing plague”) that is recorded to have taken place in Strasbourg in 1518. One of the phenomenon’s more widely-published historians, John Waller, notes that the plague hit Strasbourg during a period of intense psychological and physiological distress – he cites recent famines and epidemics of diseases both precedented and novel as contributing factors. Involuntary dance remains, to the modern mind, an unexpected consequence of these afflictions, but Glazer’s genius is in ensuring that every movement and every stillness in this piece makes absolute sense; at no point does the viewer detach from a remarkable performance that renders itself somehow explicable, acceptable, even respectable.
Strasbourg 1518 is available to stream on BBC iPlayer from 20th July 2020 until 20th July 2021.
Watch the trailer for Strasbourg 1518 here: