The New Danse Macabre: How and Why I Created a Death-Positive Performance for a 1998 Arts Festival

By Tony Wolf

My background is in the entertainment industry as a choreographer and sometime-director, with an extracurricular “minor” in ritual. I’ve always been interested in the intersection of creativity, history and psychology, and in the ways those disciplines play out in public celebrations.

I was also deeply dissatisfied with the mainstream modern, Western approaches to death and dying. On the one hand was the antiseptic, sanctimonious path of the funeral industrial complex; on the other was the jokey, commercialized ghoulishness of Halloween and horror movies. All of this was in rather sad contrast to the beautiful and vibrant Mexican Día de (los) Muertos traditions and the more somber arts of the medieval European Danse Macabre and the memento mori of the 16th-early 20th centuries.

Therefore, when offered creative carte blanche to devise a public performance event for a major “fringe” arts festival during 1998, I jumped at the chance to work positively with the theme of death. I proposed to develop the performance with a group of about fifteen acting students, and the performances themselves would take place in the streets of our home city during the course of the festival.

Becoming the Revenants

We quickly settled on a radically updated Danse Macabre as the main theme. As an artistic motif, the medieval Danse Macabre typically portrayed skeletal revenants interspersed with the living, leading them in a chain dance towards their ultimate demise. Each of the living beings in these pictures represented a different figure of the medieval social hierarchy – a priest, a king, a laborer, a child, etc. – conveying the message of “death as the great leveler”.

We adapted that idea by having each actor choose a modern urban “type” that their revenant character would represent – a businesswoman carrying a briefcase, a skate punk, a preppy college kid, etc. Their costume would represent that type and all would wear skull-face makeup.

Rehearsals began by getting a feel for the ethos of the performance – to present the Danse Macabre revenants as philosophically and emotionally neutral, neither frightening nor overtly friendly. Their perspective was one of gentle interest in the world of the living, backed by the eternal otherness and invulnerability of death. Their symbolic role, and practical task, was to remind their audience of the inevitability of their own demise, and thus also of the importance of living well.

We then established a revenant walk, which involved slightly slow, fluid and deliberate movements – an “aware” movement style. The gait we settled on was to place the weight of each step onto the ball of the foot rather than the normal heel-toe roll; also, the revenants would always turn their heads before turning their bodies and legs. Simultaneously, we established a rule of staying in character, maintaining a neutral facial expression beneath the skull makeup and never speaking unless in case of actual physical emergency.

Next, we developed a series of lazzi – stock routines that could be woven into a semi-improvised performance that I (as the director) would subtly guide via visual cues, while allowing room for spontaneity.

The lazzi included:

  • doppelganging, named and themed after the German folk superstition of the “double-walker”. In this routine, a revenant would follow at a respectful distance behind a member of the public, “haunting” them by closely imitating their movements. If the person being followed became aware of the revenant and turned around, the revenant would offer them a small flower or a chocolate coin covered in gold foil as a memento mori.
  • gifting – if a member of the public tried to interact with the silent revenants, they would, likewise, be offered a flower or chocolate coin.
  • tableaux mourant – inspired by the 19th century French performance tradition of the tableau vivant (or “living picture”), we devised several “scenes” in which the revenants assumed group poses representing daily life in the city, which they would move smoothly in and out of over the course of about a minute.
  • fountain waltz: as and when we came across public fountains during our “expeditions”, the revenants would pair up and waltz around the fountain.

We rehearsed the movement style and lazzi at the drama school over the course of a few days, then met up for our first expedition in the early evening. Fortunately, we were also able to use the school itself as a staging base.

I established a simple ritual of standing in a circle, closing eyes, holding hands and breathing together; ten inhales and ten exhales. When they opened their eyes after the tenth breath and looked at each other, they were in character. We then silently left the building and set out into the city.

Taking to the Streets

I led the way, holding a rolled up newspaper with which I gave subtle visual directions; holding the paper up slightly over my head meant “wait”, rotating it in a circle from the position meant “gather close”, etc. Otherwise, I was not in character; my role was to blend in with the spectators and keep a general watch over the performance.

We went out three times over a period of three nights, following different paths through the city depending on where the most people happened to be. The “stealth” nature of our Danse Macabre was both fun and challenging. Unlike a traditional theatrical performance, our show was a movable feast. Inevitably that meant taking our audiences by surprise, basically appearing in their midst and letting them make what they would of what they saw.

By the third expedition the performers were fully comfortable in their characters and I hardly had to offer them any direction. They moved through the streets like ghosts, doppelganging, offering their gifts to curious passers-by, moving in and out of their tableaux mourants, waltzing around fountains large and small.

On the last night the revenants surprised me by spontaneously disappearing, en masse, into a department store. I waited outside and a couple of minutes later they all re-appeared, each one standing motionless in a separate floor-to-ceiling window on the second floor, overlooking the street. They stayed there for several minutes, as more and more pedestrians noticed them looking down, then one by one they moved away from the windows and re-emerged from the store. At that point I overheard a teenage girl ask “who ARE they?”, and her friend replied “they’re a new gang” – so I guess that the Danse Macabre was also an urban legend in the making.

When I felt that we’d been out long enough, I signaled “gather” with my newspaper and we returned to the drama school, still in character until we performed the “returning to life” ritual. I remember that one actor began jumping around and pulling faces as soon as he was himself again; the silent, emotionally neutral discipline of the Danse had been hard on him, though he’d borne it well.

During debriefing, some of the actors said that they had actually felt like ghosts, simultaneously part of the world and not part of it – the difference between moving anonymously through the crowds and then suddenly being noticed as performers was almost like switching between invisibility and visibility. Some others had been worried that the people they followed during the doppelganging lazzi would be angry or upset to have been “haunted”, but that didn’t seem to have happened. Most reported that their memento mori gifts had been accepted.

Outcome

Overall, I was delighted with the actors and with the outcome of the Danse Macabre performances. I’d like to think that the simple symbolism may have challenged our audiences to think about death in a different way, far removed from the mainstream mindset. If we managed to seed a counter-cultural, death-positive outlook for some of them, then all to the good.

A few years later I created another performance piece on the same theme, involving a large cast of professional dancers, musicians, actors and circus artists leading their audience on a literal journey into that counter-culture. You can read about it here.

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