French choreographer Boris Charmatz was the co-founder of the Edna group, in 1992, together with Dimitri Chamblas. Their collaboration resulted in two remarkable shows: a duo, A bras le corps, and a one-man show, Les Disparates. From Aatt enen tionon (1996) to Régi (2006), Charmatz then created a series of pieces which were to stand out, while putting up events and exhibitions aiming at the restoration of the critical potential of dance and at bringing out the wealth and versatility of this discipline.
From 2002 to 2004 during his residence time at the Centre National de la Danse, Charmatz developed his BOCAL project, a nomadic and ephemeral school (or rather a small research group around the notion of a school). He is now a visiting professor at the Akademie der Künste (Berlin), where he is helping to create a new, B.A. dance curriculum for the 2007 academic year.
Charmatz regularly takes part in improvisation nights (soon to be held with Saul Williams, Archie Shepp and Han Bennink) and continues to work as a performer, together with Odile Duboc, Fanny de Chaillé and, more recently, Pierre Alféri and Meg Stuart.
In 2003 he wrote a book with Isabelle Launay: Entretenir/à propos d’une danse contemporaine [To interview/On the subject of a contemporary dance] (Les Presses du Réel/CND Editions). He is now preparing Je suis une Ecole (to be published in 2007). Maxine Fleuriot spoke with Boris Charmatz in August.
Maxime Fleuriot (Brooklyn Rail): Before creating your first dances, you were a recognized performer in the field of French contemporary dance. How did you become a choreographer?
Boris Charmatz: I think I was precisely motivated by the idea of avoiding, at all costs, to ‘become a choreographer!’ Before all, I wanted to continue to be a dancer for others, to go on studying Art History…while, as a kind of holiday, or as one takes on the idea of setting up a party, undertaking a ‘personal’ project such as A bras le corps...It is precisely because these first choreographies were intended as a supplement to our ‘regular’ activities that, to Dimitri Chamblas and I, they possessed the flavor of absolute freedom.
Rail: A bras le corps, which you are now performing at the Danspace Project in New York and at the MIFA, was created in 1993 with Dimitri Chamblas. What was your line of work in this duo?
Charmatz: We chose to work ‘way off’ the usual dance studios and theater houses. We looked for some place where we could seat spectators in a square, making them the show’s ‘scenery,’ meaning they would always face other spectators and sit next to others still. This very strict kind of space offers an outlet for all our excess energy. Every movement we craved seemed to find its place, including those we wanted to get rid of! Then the show took shape very quickly, in the summer, in the reception room at the Villa Gillet. This is the place where our relationship was devised, intending to play on exhaustion and on our bodies as a mass, indeed a little too massive for the streamlined choreographies as suggested by Dance Academies… As to the psychology behind our ‘relationship,’ we wanted, and still want, to leave it as open as possible, as created on site according to the various circumstances of time and place we go through with this show.
Rail: In the show, spectators sit on plain wooden benches, a few inches from the performers. One even sometimes receives spatters of sweat. The whole setting recalls a boxing ring without a safety net. Why did you choose this?
Charmatz: We wanted to reduce the distance between the spectators and the stage in order to suppress ordinary judgements as to how well movements were executed. Thus dance recovers its potential for action, and in fact, the closeness with spectators reveals breath, shiverings, and the frailty of effort, and the micro-motions which shape the rather rough momentum of choreography. One normally never hears the noise made by a dancer landing after a double turn upwards ending on the knees!
Rail: How did this duo change since it was first created? Are the questionings in A bras le corps still relevant in your present creation work?
Charmatz: As from the beginning, we thought we would grow older with this choreography, and that the best show would probably be held some forty years hence! (That is to say at a time when our physical capacity to execute it would be totally annihilated by the time elapsed.) This is very difficult to explain, but the fact that you perform a piece which is not a ‘first night’ nor a ‘creation’ tends to liberate the way you dance and the relationship with the public. Also, to dance movements which no longer ‘belong’ to us, because they belong to 17 and 19 year-old performers, frees your relationship to gestures…Interpretation takes precedence over everything else. We still like the simplicity of the set in A bras le corps, but above all, its choreography gives us an opportunity to make use of our relationship to gestures: each move may be endowed with a varying degree of energy, humour, precision… ‘Faith’ in each gesture is subjected to the moment in time for a given show, and we keep a wide margin of freedom within this very simple framework. In this sense, the piece is always topical: we bring onto the stage the bodies, the masses and the energy of our contemporariness.
Rail: In A bras le corps you dance together with Dimitri Chamblas, whose body may appear as a double of your own. In your last piece, Régi, you perform part of the show with Raimund Hoghe, himself a choreographer, whose body, older than your own, is moreover small and disabled. What then changed in your relationship with bodies?
Charmatz: I would like the way bodies are watched to be sharp, subtle, complex, problem-conscious; although Dimitri Chamblas and I are about the same age, with identical trainings, I do hope our bodies are clearly seen to be heterogeneous, as working in complicity. Naturally the invention of the relationship with Raimund Hoghe developed quite differently, and I would say that the weight of fantasy and ghosts that govern the relationship to others, or even to Otherness with a capital O, must be more apparent in the latter piece. However I think that in both cases (A bras le corps and Régi) one must abandon preconceived ideas. In A bras le corps the lack of frontality and the proximity with a raw dancing experience blows up the image of the body. And in Régi Raimund Hoghe’s ability to compensate for his lame body, his lack of strength, to transcend his own personal history through Art, gives spectators an inkling of unheard-of relationships between bodies, such that it might at first seem difficult to sustain or even might be forbidden on the stage.
Rail: Do you follow the work of other choreographers working outside France, particularly in the United States? In what way does this nourish or influence your own work?
Charmatz: It is simple: I am still a dancer for other choreographers, and I love this part of my work… I was particularly happy to observe the work Jennifer Lacey, an American who is in France, and I now work with Meg Stuart, who is also American, while in residence at the Volksbühne in Berlin.
Rail: Have you ever danced this duo in the United States? How do you feel when Americans ask you to perform this duo rather than a more recent piece?
Charmatz: I am not sure ‘Americans’—or ‘French people,’ for that matter—may be categorized in such a distinct and uniform manner! I would like to be invited by ‘the Americans’ but I doubt they would convene and decide to invite us! Generally I can say I never dance in the United States… You might probably find it difficult to imagine the amount of work carried out by the Edna group, which is multifarious, including publications, the production of pieces by other Artists (whether in the field of choreography or plastic arts), projects in experimental education, a special kind of work with the public… Therefore why not show that from which we started? It is surely a little less toxic or corrosive than some of our recent work, but we take enormous pleasure in performing this duo. Moreover, Dance in the United States generally lacks the means for developing and bringing in more exchange schemes. Thus any initiative is a good thing for both sides of the Atlantic! Three cheers for the meager transatlantic artistic flow!
Rail: Artists in contemporary dance, in the 1980s in France, as well as before them those of Postmodern Dance in the United States (Grand Union, Judson Church…) suggested a number of innovations in form, together with a wish for some kind of official recognition of their Art, and sometimes with a more general hope of political change. How do you see the present situation in France? Must/can Dance express political views?
Charmatz: In 2001, Lionel Jospin, the socialist candidate, was eliminated in the first round of the presidential election. Thus a far right candidate could compete in the second round, and since then xenophobic and reactionary ideas have gained even more ground in France. I then wrote a strange speech: the speech Lionel Jospin had not delivered, the one he almost did, the one we would have wanted him to deliver; which he had not done, perhaps out of electoral calculations… I had the impression that even a dancer in a sweat suit could address ‘France’ and express with gestures the political desires we all harbour.
For New York I could also imagine the speech Jacques Chirac will never deliver… and the dance that goes with it! This speech would be an act of self-criticism, a practice he rarely observes… I like the idea that a simple dancer could speak in the name of France and address Americans as if he were the President of the French Republic. Frenzied gesticulating is often all that is left to powerless citizens in the face of the sad news of the world!
Rail: What are you working on at the moment?
Charmatz: I am finishing page 174 of a book I am writing from the experience of ‘BOCAL.’ During a whole year I gathered some 15 people to invent a school… More precisely, the invention of the school was our main exercise: in the absence of visiting professors, we had to imagine ourselves our exercises, our theories, our daily life. This has been a very rewarding experience, and I try to clarify it by writing!
After ‘Bocal’ the Art University in Berlin (Akademie der Künste) invited me to take part in the creation of a new Dance B.A…We should start with correspondence courses, all through the Internet! Do you think this is possible?
Charmatz’s À Bras le corps will be performed as part of Danspace Project’s “European Dream Festival” (Global Exchange/FUSED). October 26th, 27tth & 28th, 8.30 pm. For more information, please visit www.danspaceproject.org
Translated by Denis Griesmar.
This interview was made possible by the Villa Gillet in Lyon, France. For more details, go to www.villagillet.net
Maxime Fleuriot was born in 1980. Having read French Literature and Language at the Sorbonne, he trained as a dancer at the Centre Choregraphique de Montpellier under Mathilde Monnier. He is now a professional performer and he has been contributing papers about Modern Dance for several years in French specialized journals. He also works as an assistant director in documentaries and as an actor in films of fiction.