The Danse Macabre

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We performed our final performance of The Decameron last night (28th June 2014) and now I can reveal a part of our performance – the Danse Macabre – this is a dance of death, where quirky skeletons and rotting bodies come back to claim the lives of the living.

As the Decameron is set at the time of the black death, we contrasted the death and decay of the plague (kept on the inside of the church) separate from the life and gaiety of the storytellers (the outside of the church), 7 women and 3 men who escape the plague in Florence and go to the countryside to tell each other stories to escape their woes. A 100 tales are told in all. 

As a performer I found it difficult to dance the danse macabre during rehearsals and then even during the performance. I found it all very disturbing and I wanted to reflect on my feelings of disturbance. Our performers were encouraged to contort their bodies and faces and grimace as they moved in chaotic sequences. As the performances went on I started to prefer the danse. I enjoyed it so much that at times I felt I was really dead. The danse is always about the death that is always present in life – this preoccupies us as one question  – do I exist? In modern cultures the boundary between life and death is rigid and separate, and in other cultures (such as medieval Florence) there is more flow between them. Is it possible to be alive and dead at the same time? Are these themes really referring to death, but in fact to life? We can answer some of this by reference to The Decameron. Boccaccio remarks in his introduction how the black death so completely transformed Florence that it led to a breaking down of social relationships – there is one part that he remarks that mother and father begin to reject their children, husband reject wives, kin and kin. The very nature of the disease meant that it was visible (boils would be present on the skin) and contagious (it could be cause by proximity to another sufferer) led to a breakdown of human relationships. I draw from this that our notions of death are about the way relationships with others are created, maintained and dissolved. To have some sense of existence, one must be recognised as being alive, so aliveness is not merely a quality of the living, but an aspect of our relational encounters with others. I don’t believe that in modernity there is a rigid boundary between life and death. The reality is we do not know death. All we know of death is actually all we know of life. Therefore our concepts of death are always related to our lived experience. Therefore our death reveals something about life. I think these themes relate very importantly to my research in robotics. The central research issue for me is how humans make attachments to others, and what happens when they can’t. Can machine stand in place of another human in a relationship? Some people believe this is possible and robots are now created to help the elderly, children with autism, men with attachment difficulties. I think this list is going to keep on growing. It’s almost as though we live in a culture of death.

In the last few weeks and for 4 nights, I have alternated between being alive and dead. It is in the performance and in the chance to experience and be with otherness that I feel transformed.

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