Simona Deaconescu

Unlimited Gestures


Romanian choreographer Simona Deaconescu is collaborating with Malagasy choreographer Gaby Saranouffi on the dance performance Ramanenjana, which looks at the 1863 “dancing plague“ in Madagascar.

Portrait of Simona Deaconescu

Simona Deaconescu

The project, with mentoring provided by Mathilde Monnier, melds historical testimonies, choreographic gestures, and sound scenography to create a performative docufiction in which movements generate critical commentary on spoken text.

The notion of a “dance epidemic“ first emerged in medieval Europe to denote a phenomenon in which hundreds of people in one geographic area would begin to dance for no apparent reason, uncontrollably and involuntarily. Ten dance epidemics were recorded in Europe in the Middle Ages: all were started by women and spread through the lower classes, whose people feared punishment from the Church.

The choreographed piece Ramanenjana addresses the world’s last recorded dance epidemic: breaking out in February 1863 in Madagascar’s Bara Region, it quickly spread to five other regions. Around 20,000 people reportedly danced until May as if in a trance. In the Malagasy language, the wordramanenjana” means tremor, or something that makes you strong. The phenomenon was described as a highly contagious disease affecting mostly young women. Their dancing was described as fast, rhythmic, acrobatic; beautiful in small groups but terrifying in larger masses.

Most of the historical documentation researched within this project comes from missionaries deployed by the British and the French: Dr. Andrew Davidson (whom the British Empire deployed on a medical mission), Reverend William Ellis (one of the first missionaries to photograph Madagascar), and French Jesuit missionary Father Marc Finaz. Another important source comes from Dr. Andrianjafy, a Malagasy doctor raised and educated in the French tradition, who made ramanenjana the study of his 1902 doctoral thesis presented in Montpelier, France. 

Some of their accounts acknowledge the mass dance’s political implications, connecting the dancers to a party that fought against European colonization of the island. Yet neither of them admitted that the dancers were expressing dissatisfaction with their rulers. Instead, the “dance sickness” was attributed to a mass psychosis caused by the lack of moral discipline, malaria, or spiritual beliefs that did not comply with the Church’s teachings. Dr. Andrianjafy went so far as to recommend the mass distribution of quinine to “all predisposed lower-class populations,” targeting mainly enslaved rice harvesters.

In reality, ramanenjana occurred at a time of famine and poverty, compounded by the colonial ambitions of both the British and French. The dancers claimed that they danced to save their community. Deaconescu and Saranouffi’s further research places ramanenjana within the context of a traditional ritual performed by Sakalava, an ethnic Malagasy group, in which the sick dance their illness away, and become one with their ancestors in a state of trance. The practice makes it possible for the people to conceptualize their problems as a community and reaffirm their family heritage. From a contemporary perspective, the political implications of the mass dances are plausible, as the epidemic suddenly stopped when the king was assassinated and his wife took the throne, promising to limit French influence in the territory. Contemporary dance theorists such as Dr. Kelina Gotman consider it a political act that overturned a regime and reestablished balance. The performance Ramanenjana recontextualizes dance as a means of peaceful protest, a way of reclaiming identity and finding healing as a community.

Choreographer Gaby Saranouffi
Choreographer Gaby Saranouffi

Ramanenjana was created and produced in Antananarivo and Bucharest, co-choreographed by Simona Deaconescu (RO) and Gaby Saranouffi (MG), accompanied by performers Haja Saranouffi (MG), Maria Luiza Dimulescu (RO) and Simona Dabija (RO). Malagasy musician and ethnologist Olombelo Ricky will bring his contribution to the piece by mixing traditional Malagasy sound with contemporary vibes, while Romanian scenographer Cristina Milea will create costumes through an upcycling process. The show will premiere in April at radialsystem in Berlin, as part of the Forecast Festival, followed by a Romanian premiere at The National Centre for Dance in Bucharest and a regional Malagasy tour in the fall of 2022 in Antananarivo, Majunga, and Diego Suarez, as part of I’TRÔTRA International Dance Festival.

Ramanenjana is produced by Tangaj Collective Association in coproduction with Forecast and The National Centre for Dance in Bucharest. Cofinanced by The Administration of the National Cultural Fund in Romania and supported by the Goethe-Institut Bucharest; the French Institute in Romania; The Romanian Cultural Institute Berlin; The French Institute in South Africa; /SAC @ MALMAISON; and Grizzly Film. Developed in partnership with The French Institute in Madagascar; Goethe-Zentrum Antananarivo; I’TROTA International Dance Festival; and JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience. Ramanenjana benefited from a residency at PACT Zollverein.

Watch a recap of Ramanenjana’s premiere at the Forecast Festival 6: