- Choreomania: Dance and Disorder by Kélina Gotman
In his manifesto for an insurgent literary practice, the critic Alan Sinfield, rereading Othello, argues that the 'scope for dissident understanding and action occurs . . . because the social order cannot but produce fault-lines through which its own criteria of plausibility fall into contest and disarray'.1 It is along such faultlines that Sinfield, following Raymond Williams, maps a politics of dissident reading that exposes the recalcitrant underbelly of the early modern cultural apparatus and the associated ruptures–in ways of thinking about gender, religion, sexuality, and ideology–that are always encoded within literary texts. Choreomaniacs, the errant subjects of Kélina Gotman's brilliantly expansive study, also 'appear where there is a fault line in civilization, a rupture and an opening, out of which they seem to spill', marking a series of unstable challenges to the order of things (p. 47). Also referred to as the 'dancing disease' or 'dancing mania', choreomania was a mysterious affliction that notably spread throughout Germany, France, and other parts of Europe between the Middle Ages and the seventeenth century, causing sufferers to dance, writhe, and jerk uncontrollably, apparently without clear medical cause. Yet it is not merely the phenomenon of the dancing mania that interests Gotman in this book, but rather the history of ideas that took shape around it, a history that turns out to be as sinuous and unruly as the bodies of the choreomaniacs themselves. For Gotman, as for Williams and Sinfield, the notion of order is always conditioned by its apparent opposite, disorder, or rather, as [End Page 394] Gotman puts it, 'disorder' defines and structures 'the fantasy of orderliness' (p. 17). In this case, the prevailing fantasy is one of a compliant and homogenous social body, which was, as Gotman shows, repeatedly undermined by various outbreaks of the dancing mania and its historiographies, later recorded and pathologised in the corpus of nineteenth- and twentieth-century medical writing.
Choreography itself bears an ambivalent relationship to this extraordinary, ambitious book: there is scarce mention of concert dance or the repertoire of classical ballet, and most of the behaviours described are deliberately anarchic, erratic, and impulsive, documented in a wide array of medieval texts and images, and subsequently analysed by physicians and neurologists including Justus Hecker, Jean-Martin Charcot, and Paul Richer. As Gotman shows, it is the very resistance of these gestures to transcription–their apparent indecipherability–that allows them to be coopted into this wide-ranging history of movement and bodily disorder. As it transpires across some eleven chapters, the history of choreomania is also a history of modernity, one deeply embedded in an Enlightenment concern with 'truth' and an opposition to primitivism and irrationality, ideas reactivated by the spectre of the 'dancing disease' and its victims. In the writings of Hecker, Charcot, Henry Swinburne, Andrew Davidson, and many others, Gotman finds a catalogue of descriptions relating to exaggerated and irregular gestures, betraying a nineteenth-century obsession with the Dionysian and the medieval, along with deeply ingrained prejudices against feminine, queer, and racialised bodies, which she follows across colonial medical literature in the second part of the book. Readers will find the ways in which they think about 'dance' continually altered as Gotman moves seamlessly between the work of figures as diverse as Kant, Durkheim, Nietzsche, and Agamben to trace a preoccupation with forms of movement deemed troublingly 'excessive' and therefore threatening to various conceptions of ordered living.
This study can be aligned with a particularly productive moment at the juncture of dance and performance studies; a moment dedicated to the reevaluation of disciplinary, historical, and geographical boundaries.2 Choreography is not merely the subject of Gotman's enquiry (if it can be said to be her subject at all), but also her method: this book dances and moves between disciplinary and conceptual frameworks, constructing a critical corpus–a history of ideas–that refuses to settle, that morphs and [End Page 395] mutates where it meets its objects. Yet while the 'disorder' Gotman encounters allows her to prod...