Animal Magnetism Trilogy

If a man roars, he’s dynamic

If a woman roars, she’s hysterical

Hildegard Knef

Animal Magnetism is a tribute to all hysterics through 5000 years! Particularly those who were locked up in Salpêtrière around the last turn of the century. In this Parisian hospital, Jean Martin Charcot used them to conduct his research. Charcot is renowned in France for developing modern day psychiatry, which would have been impossible without his lab rats, the stars of hysteria!

Every Thursday, the patients were made to perform hysteria in front of a male audience, the way Charcot had categorized, virtually choreographed it. Some of the ladies also performed at Pigalle. The Asylum was the stage, the dramatic poetry was their medical records, the hysterics played the parts and the doctors were the audience. But also artists such as Strindberg, Ibsen and Bjørnson visited the shows and were inspired by the ladies’ rather erotic performances.

Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is said to have been a classical hysteric, however, the way her socio-realistic character is interpreted today there is little left of le grande hysteri. Choreographer Henrietter Pedersen aims to challenge this watered down perception:

Hysteria was a syndrome solidly tied to the body, the woman and sexuality: Simulated epileptic fits, clownish behaviour, contractions and gestures, passionate posing, ecstasy and delirium describes the content and construction of perfect hysteria throughout the golden age of hysteria, 1870-1915. The bourgeoisie ladies were expected to be abnormal, which is what made them into real women. However, lots of unmarried women had their male guardians ship them off to asylums once they proved too difficult to handle.

Symptoms that caused fits and/or formed the illness could be:

  1. Hypersensitivity or numbness in skin, mucous membrane, muscles, legs and in the heightened senses.
  2. Pains in skin, muscles, joints, head, abdomen, chest and other hysterogenic zones.
  3. Paralysis, contraction, convulsion and vomiting.
  4. Spasms in the digestive organs, respiratory passage and genitals
  5. Strengthened muscle capacity in facial areas and limbs, grimaces and cramps
  6. Interruptions of movements, feelings, blood circulation and secretion such as menstruation, sweat and urine
  7. Changes in the spiritual life, nerves on the verge of mental disorder, depression, irritation, divergent temper and will, moaning, exaggeration, vivid imagination, false memory, projection of false accusations of rape and dishonour, self-assertion, erotic conduct, pathological fraud, thieving, religious scruples, whining, muteness, deafness and speaking in tongues.

Animal Magnetism was one in many methods of treatment developed by Franz Anton Mesmer, hence the hypnotic condition mesmerized. Other forms of treatment consisted of visiting areas close to nature, long baths, physical contact, touching of hysterogenic zones, speaking in tongues, Bayern beer, morphine, opium, hashish, arsenic, electrocution and surgery, often on the genitals. Hysteria ceased to exist as a medical condition in 1926. Hysterical, however, is still frequently used to describe behaviour beyond the ‘normal’ and especially in relation to women. Women are punished for crossing borders, whereas men are awarded. There are stricter rules for what is acceptable behaviour for women.

Most girls stop giggling, racketing and other silly behaviour at an early age (especially around boys) in order to accommodate and to be included in the social regimes of reason. Women restrain themselves from irrational outburst, clownish behaviour, gestures, passionate posing and ecstasy. The question is if this adaption works as an effective (self) discipline, preventing free-floating energy, lust and sexuality? Did the previous century’s hysterics in some ways experience more freedom than present day women?

The staging of “the bodily theatre” by the star hysterics at Salpêtrière caused insecurity in the entire medical science, because no one was certain that the hysteric behaviour was genuine. The more perfect their hysteria, the more Charcot’s “objective” observation based research was put under doubt. The acts of hysteria gained the stars power, and made them influential in the roles of scientists’ mistresses. Did the “patients” trick their audience by showing off their healthy and truly ecstatic behaviour?

Pedersen stages hysteria 150 years after Charcot. This is in order to legitimise the energy and desire that lies in the giggles and silliness, racket and nonsense of girlie games. It is to appreciate the unseemly behaviour that women rarely take the liberty to let out. It is to show the things that female performers hold back on stage. It is to encourage everyone to dare to defy norms, the regimes of reason and the patriarchy’s law and order.

Pedersen induce laughter and tears in her audience. Not necessarily through humour and definitely not through seriousness, but because the performances feel liberating. Animal Magnetism gives you the performers’ uncensored and delightful flow of life with the intention of spreading it to the audience. The performance is something as rare as a subversive feminist art project on stage serving a quiet revolution.

Enjoy life!