Dance Macabre Blueprint

Dance Macabre Blueprint

Dance Macabre was a dancing larp based on the larp In Fair Verona[1]In Fair Verona is a tango-larp-love story made by Tue Beck Saarie (Olling) and Jesper Bruun for 30 players. The game explores different love relationships between male and female characters. The focus of the game is the individual character’s emotions and the attempt to overcome problems and fears around the subject of love. In this larp the dancing is the medium of storytelling and we found that very inspiring. For more information check the website: http://www.danceaffair.org/in-fair-verona/ by Tue Beck Saarie and Jesper Bruun, and on one chapter of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. We initially conceived the game as an experiment to find out whether Czech larpers would even be interested in this style of larp, and whether the Nordic larp approach in general would be welcomed in the Czech Republic. We also wanted to identify the scope of adaptations required to make the Nordic larp-like game attractive for the Czech larp community. This article sums up the concept of the game, the mechanics used and the experience gained from the creation and organization of the game.

Dance Macabre has long been an open wound for me – but I mean that in the positive sense of the word, if there even is such a thing as a positive sense of the word. Now it’s become a strong memory, an emotional experiment that I was glad to have experienced. You don’t need to know any dancing; you just have to be willing to leave a bit of yourself in the game.
Ciri – player

This form of the larp was largely inspired by a workshop presenting In Fair Verona at Knutepunkt 2011. After starting the preparations for Dance Macabre in summer 2011, we also attended the run of the In Fair Verona larp in Stockholm 2012, and used the in-game and workshop experience, especially some of the character creation techniques, the dancing and game design techniques, to fine tune the design of our game. We also created an Icebreaker workshop and added elements and techniques focused on nonverbal playing in all the workshops. We outline the main differences between Dance Macabre and In Fair Verona in the text to follow.

The setting and the plot of the game were inspired by the Danse Macabre chapter of Neil Gaiman‘s The Graveyard Book, particularly by the idea of a rare mystical occasion where the living and the dead have the opportunity to meet and communicate. Just as in the book, the location and the time of the game were of no particular importance and none too specific. The personal stories pursued in the game involved the crossing of the border between the living and the dead, and opened up issues such as how to achieve emotional closure, how to say last words before the final departure, how to move on with one’s own life or how to find a peaceful rest at the end of things. An example of story in the game might be possibility to meet and say farewell to your deceased love and find the courage to go on with your life with new hope for better tomorrows or your new love. In the game it was possible to seek revenge through fight (played out symbolically in a dance), but it was impossible to kill – although you could choose death for yourself.

Dance Macabre, photo by Šárka Růžičková

Dance Macabre, photo by Šárka Růžičková

Pre-Game Workshops

I think a lot of thought went into the making of the game – any kind of game or preparation, though it may seem pointless at the time, proves to be useful in other part of the workshops.
Iva Tatranová – player

One of the important lessons of our experience with In Fair Verona is that we enjoyed the pre-game workshops as much as the game itself. The workshops for Dance Macabre were four times longer than the game, it was therefore necessary to make them interesting and playful to ensure good, comfortable and friendly mood between players for the later parts of the game. We could see from the players’ hesitant behavior before the event that some were not quite comfortable with not knowing how to play the game and what was expected, so we made it our goal to make the workshops as smooth and easy-going as possible, encouraging players to ask for help whenever they lost track or became insecure about anything. The eight-person organizational team was at hand throughout the workshops, ready to step in, assist or answer any questions. We believe this helped the players to get ready for the game as smoothly as possible.

The 14-hour workshops combined dancing lessons, icebreaking activities, and training in non-verbal expression techniques, as well as lessons on how to create strong and enduring characters and stories. Speaking of which, the methods used to create characters and pursue their individual stories were also strongly inspired by In Fair Verona and applied plenty of similar techniques such as props, short concepts of characters, challenges for the character, or relationships with others as the means to deal with character challenges.

To make the game more interesting, we also included a part of the relationship workshop where players were asked to create and experience a same-sex relationship. A relationship with a person of the same sex was also a compulsory part of every character’s relationships in the game as our way of familiarizing players with all possibilities of the dance and game.

The dancing lessons were inspired by the larp In fair Verona too, but they were arranged in accordance with the preferred approach of each teacher (in four different runs of the game, we cooperated with three different pairs of dancing teachers), although all accounted for the specific needs of the game. The first part of the dancing lessons was incorporated in the Icebreaker workshop on Friday evening in order to introduce players early on to the basics of the specific tango motion and the lead-follow principle. The Saturday morning workshop was focused on tango technique only, while in the afternoon we teach people how to express different emotions and attitudes through dance, and how to use dance to establish relationships between characters. The Sunday morning workshop aimed to imprint the underlying nature of each character in the players’ dance and to teach players when and how to break tango rules to better express their character through dance. In all the workshops we demanded frequent alterations of couples and important part of workshops included change of lead-follow roles and dancing in same sex couples.

Dance Macabre, photo by Šárka Růžičková

Dance Macabre, photo by Šárka Růžičková

We used many of the traditional techniques of dramatic education in our Icebreaker workshop and to a certain extent in other workshops too. In the Icebreaker, we thought the players to get used to being in close physical contact with each other, and to engage emotionally in the game. The technique drills also proved to be beneficial in helping the players to improve the quality of their character engagement in the game by giving them access to simple but effective range of movements to express different emotions and to connect different parts of the entire experience into a single whole. We think this was a very important part of the workshops because it helped players find and learn to express their characters even before they start dancing. Some of the techniques were presented at KP2013 in the workshop Shut your mouth and play it out :-).

To help participants remember the rather extensive quantity of information presented in the workshops, we sticked notes on the walls of the room with inspirational texts and important dancing tips or leads.

Just as at In Fair Verona, we reserved the Saturday evening for the Jam (dance party), where the participants may practice their dancing skills or just relax and party with others.

Game Design

The strongest moment for me was when the bell struck for the twelfth time and the whole evening was coming to an end. Death was walking around us and taking the dead back. And when she was approaching us and I saw her catch a sight of us from the distance, we looked each other in the eye; that made me shiver.
Estanor – player

Through the workshops the players acquired the basic understanding of the character they were about to portray (to the extent of the information important for the game), its in-game point of departure and motivations, and the background relationships with other characters. This provided the players with the content for the first half of the game. Most players agreed to have their endings resolved through the process of the game, but some might feel uncomfortable about not knowing how it will all end up, so we gave them a chance to arrange their endings ahead of time. This arrangement also gave couples an opportunity to end up with each other without having to resort to steering the game. In the absence of a strict script, we found it important to give the players a precise timeframe to work with, especially considering that each player is in charge of his own game individually. For this purpose, we divided the game into 3 acts, each consisting of 3 sets, called tandas, and each tanda of 4 songs. From the gameplay perspective, the whole game takes place in the short while that it takes the bells to toll midnight. As a result, the ringing of bells divided the tandas, and bells were also used to mark the beginning and the end of each act, and the beginning and the end of the whole game too. Throughout the game, we used large clocks to identify individual tandas and give the players a good sense of how much time they have left to bring their story to its end.

Dance Macabre, photo by Roman Hřebecký

The acts were divided by short intermissions to give players some rest from dancing the whole time. We did not use a proprietary scenography in our workshop but rather follow the design inspired by In Fair Verona played in Stockholm 2012. Unlike in In fair Verona we decided not to include creation of the scenography in the workshops, but it was created by organizers because characters were more archetypal concepts without any occupation or social status and we wanted to save some time in the time schedule of the whole weekend. The set was conceived as a town square surrounded by buildings that are important for expressing various in-game emotions. The buildings were marked only by lines drawn on the dance floor; we also included certain inspirational props that could be used in the dance (scarf, cards etc.).

The figure of Death, the Grey Lady, played an important part of the game plot. Acted by an organizer, she escorted the deceased into the land of the living, and then guided them back to the land of the dead at the very end of the game. While the characters could not kill each other during the game, the Grey Lady might decide to collect a life during the game for some good reason. The characters were also free to dance with her if they wish to settle any old issues, for example ask why she took someone close to them. According to the players, dancing with the Grey Lady was one of the most intense experiences they ever had.

It should be noted at this point that the dancing aspect of the game, which combines argentine tango and contact improvisation, was not used in the game for its own sake, however enjoyable it may be, but rather as the means to an end, an instrument of personal expression of the player’s character and its story. Players in Dance Macabre were encouraged to play the whole game in silence and only through nonverbal communication. Unlike in In Fair Verona players did not talk to each other in the game at all. Even though we had doubts whether it will provide range of expressions wide enough to experience the story in its’ complexity, we were happy to see that it actually intensified the whole experience. The nonverbal aspect of the game made the entire experience considerably more intense and players tended to experience stronger bleed than they usually do from other larps.

After the Game

I was very pleased that the organizers did their best to create good after-game mental hygiene. They were aware the game can be difficult to cope with, that the aftereffects can be long and problematic and so they prepared for it and I think they did everything they could to help us, so that we wouldn’t leave as emotional wretches, but had mostly positive experiences and memories instead.
Genevieve – player

Dance Macabre is (for me) like good whisky. First it’s bitter and doesn’t taste like much, but the flavor gradually improves and you start to really appreciate it. The final reflection came too soon for me – I drank too much of that whisky and was still a bit drunk.
Maník – player

Dance Macabre, photo by Šárka Růžičková

Dance Macabre, photo by Šárka Růžičková

The game ended on Sunday afternoon and it was followed by short period of deroleing and debriefing. As in In Fair Verona, players were encouraged to discuss their experience and their characters’ stories. The first run of the game revealed that players tended to be very emotional after the game, so we added some techniques to help the de-roleing process (i.e. naming the character, talking about it like about a stranger, a short game reminder about their personalities). The game appeared to exert a rather strong bleed effect on many participants, but regrettably, the timeframe available for the game did not allow for more post-game activities.

Summary

Four steps to a brilliant game: a step to the right, a step to the left, forwards and backwards. Death, love, hatred, forgiveness.
Sindor – player

The purpose of Dance Macabre was to introduce nonverbal and dancing techniques as viable in-game communication methods to the Czech larp community, and also to present some of the other interesting features of the Nordic larp-like games. For us as organizers, the experience opened up a whole new host of gameplay possibilities and taught us a valuable lesson on how to work with players who lack previous experience of some of the more novel larp concepts, as well as a lesson about the importance of the deroleing process, and the great impact of the nonverbal aspects on the emotional experience of the game. We are also happy to report that the Czech larp players seem very excited about the game concept and that we have plenty of new prospective players willing to participate in the next runs of the game, as well as old players who wish to re-visit the experience.

Dance Macabre, photo by Šárka Růžičková

Dance Macabre, photo by Šárka Růžičková

One of the most important things we learned was the importance of de-roleing and the deepness of nonverbal communication, which has a great emotional impact on the player, because due to the lack of verbalization it sometimes bypasses the rational parts of the brain and influences emotions of the player directly. For me personally, Dance Macabre was also an important lesson about the differences between games played in Prague and outside of the city, about the impact of location on group dynamics and its influence on the game itself.

Additional Note

The game has now been run eight times. There had been four runs before this article was originally written (2012–2014) and four more afterwards (2016–2019). The last two runs were played in English; one of them took place in the Czech Republic with international players (2018), and the other one was made in the UK in cooperation with local players and organizers, who took care of the production and invited the game designers to run the game there (2019). Neither of the English-language runs set any gender-related rules or content in the game. Players signed up in couples consisting of one leader and one follower, and all the content focused only on the dancing roles, i.e., the same-sex relationship mentioned above became a same-dance-role relationship.

Dance Macabre

Credits: Mikuláš Bryan, Kateřina Bryanová, Kateřina Holendová, Monika Kadaňková, Pavel Mejstřík, Pavlína Mejstříková, Šárka Olehová, Jana Pouchlá, Petr Růžička, Petr Urban, Caminito.Cz, Buenos Aires Tango, Ondřej Vicenik, Van Ahn Nguyenová, Iva Vávrová

Date: 2012–2019 (eight runs in total)

Location: Praha, Vanov u Telče, Svatý Ján pod Skalou, Lipník, Zámek Veltrusy, Krasnice Czech Republic; near Cambridge, UK

Length: game – 3 hours, workshops – 14 hours

Players: 40

Participation fee: €50–80€ in CZ

Proofreading: Iva Vávrová

Web:

http://dancemacabre.tempusludi.cz/ (in Czech), http://dancemacabre-en.tempusludi.cz/ (in English)

Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/dance.macabre.larp

Photos:

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.419887498033165.90900.127279253960659&type=1

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.483878351643640.119048.283565981674879&type=1

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.569528713069042.1073741828.127279253960659&type=3

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.658602907494955.1073741834.127279253960659&type=1

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.2231212786900618&type=3

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1441025652586006&type=3

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.658602907494955.1073741834.127279253960659&type=1

Short Dancing Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GoAGdNaGMtQ&ab_channel=VegaProduction

Video documentary (with English subtitles): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wk95Bb5hF2A&ab_channel=VegaProduction

Cover photo: Image by Šárka Růžičková

References

References
1In Fair Verona is a tango-larp-love story made by Tue Beck Saarie (Olling) and Jesper Bruun for 30 players. The game explores different love relationships between male and female characters. The focus of the game is the individual character’s emotions and the attempt to overcome problems and fears around the subject of love. In this larp the dancing is the medium of storytelling and we found that very inspiring. For more information check the website: http://www.danceaffair.org/in-fair-verona/

Authors

She’s been playing and organizing larps since 2003 and since 2007 she’s been a member of the larp association Tempus ludi, z.s. She took part in organising a lot of different types of larps in Czechia and found out that she likes experimenting with various modes of telling stories and discovering new options. After Dance Macabre she also codesigned the Cien Anos de Soledad larp, an experimental larp, which tested a number of new mechanisms for storytelling. Currently she works on Valley of Shadow larp, another game involving dance, but with a lot of new design choices.
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