Choreographer Boris Charmatz tells how the performace 20 Dancers for the XX Century is born
Boris Charmatz is one of the most important choreographers on the international performance scene. In his works he has often taken dance outside the stage, in museums such as the Tate in London and the MoMA in New York, in public and open spaces. We interviewed him a few days before welcoming him to Triennale together with the performers who were the protagonists of the performance 20 dancers for the twentieth century and beyond.
Making the dancing body visible amid other bodies in movement is the key concept behind the 20 Dancers for the XX Century. On September 10, 2021, at the invitation of Triennale Milano and the Cartier Foundation, as part of Triennale Milano, the audience will be able to discover this living dance archive as they visit the exhibitions and walk by the architectural elements on display. What relationship are you looking for with the audience and with space?
One of the key points of this project is horizontality. The dancers are on the same level as the visitors; there is no stage and there are no steps. This creates some sort of interaction between the movement of dancers and the movement of passers-by.
However, the period evoked by the dancers is far removed from everyday life, from the here and now of visitors, as they present solos from the 20th
and/or the 21st century.
In a way, the visitors' present itinerary is enriched by some sort of museum collection that is historical yet alive, fragile and ephemeral. The audience is confronted with emblematic gestures that we believe to represent a journey through the choreographic art of the 20th and 21st centuries. The visitors suddenly find themselves experiencing the gestures of Martha Graham, Charlie Chaplin, Vito Acconci, Merce Cunningham or d’Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
We could say that your artistic practice explores the boundaries of dance in an attempt to push them, to go beyond them, in search of new territories to share with other forms of artistic expression and unprecedented relationships with the audience. Where is the limit of this?
For me there are actually no limits, because dance is a land of freedom: freedom of movement, of course, but also social, sexual and historical freedom. I like to think of it as an infinite field. Clearly, there are some physical limits: can I still jump and turn at my age? What are the limits of my body?
But for me dance is above all a mental space, which is by definition unlimited.
20 Dancers for the XX Century is a form of expansion of what dance can be, as each of the 20 dancers offers 2, 3 or 4 solos. We are in front of a veritable choreographic forest that no visitor can fully grasp. We walk in a choreographic world that is larger than what we can perceive, and I really like that feeling.
This project is not an engaging proposal in which we teach a crowd to dance with us – although some of the 20 dancers’s solos are sometimes taught to passers-by. It is above all a project of virtuoso dancers.
What I love about dance is that you can always imagine something else, exploring different paths. I recently completed a project in Manchester with 150 participants who hardly needed an audience anymore, meaning that they were creating an ecosystem that could pretty much function with virtually no spectators.
Under your direction, the Musée de la danse has come up with a profusion of formats moving dance from its preferred spaces to other areas. What are the needs and principles behind this space, both physical - as a place - and creative - as an idea?
Again, for me, dance is mostly a mental space. For 10 years, we searched for the ideal architecture for a Musée de la danse (a dance museum), which is the name we gave to the National Choreographic Centre that I headed in Rennes. We have tested this architecture in art schools, in museums such as London’s Tate Modern or Reina Sofia in Madrid. We also tried to create this Musée de la danse in dance studios or in open spaces.
I gradually realised that the best architecture for dance was in fact a space without walls or roofs, which could be reconfigured at will by the action of the people who would come to temporarily inhabit this land or [terrain]¹.
So this[terrain] project that agitates me today is both concrete and highly speculative. I want us to settle in green, urban and choreographic spaces, in which the main architecture will be human. We will certainly need a toilet or a changing room, as we have started to imagine when we spoke with Stefano Boeri.
The architecture of this institution I’m dreaming of would be made mainly of the bodies and movements of the people who come together to make a corridor, to make several rooms, to make a theatre, to make a dance circle… It is the bodies themselves that will design the architecture of this future place.
We have already been able to test ground, with our first test in Zurich, with the Zürcher Theater Spektakel. This resulted in a very beautiful film – TANZGRUND, by César Vayssié (2021). We had organised practical and theory sessions around this project.
In 2022, we will test it in Paris, Lisbon and in Hauts-de-France, because we would like to be able to install this [terrain] both in a sedentary and itinerant manner in this region in the north of France. This is the project that motivates me right now, but I'm not going to give up playing in theatres or museums.
I do not want to limit myself and I am obviously extremely happy to be able to adapt the piece 20 Dancers for the XX Century at the invitation of Triennale Milano and the Fondation Cartier, to the magnificent Palazzo dell’Arte.
You are the creator of experimental projects which investigate possible intersections between different languages. Can you tell us a few words about your next projects?
Right now I’m preparing a solo called SOMNOLE² in which I dance and whistle for the duration of the piece. As a kid, I used to whistle all the time at recess until I was a teenager. I probably wasted my time not playing football with friends to whistle whatever came to my mind. This solo is also one of the effects of confinement and the Covid crisis. After lockdown, the first thing I could do was to be alone in the dance studio, so I decided, like 3,776 other dancers and choreographers across Europe, to prepare a solo. But I like it, it's the first time I've created a solo for myself. I really like being in this very fragile but also musical state, to whistle the melodies that go through my head and dance them in real time.
I am also working on another longer-term project which might be called Liberté Cathédrale. It is a reflection on the concept of the secular cathedral and the idea of a heritage that is not only Christian but ultimately human. I am fascinated by large organs and bursts of bells; after several years of hesitation, I am trying to embark on a project for organ, bells and bodies moving freely.
Dancer, choreographer, creator of experimental projects, director of the Musée de la Danse from 2009 to 2018 and of [terrain] since 2019, Boris Charmatz is one of the major figures of the French contemporary choreography scene. From À bras-le-corps (1993) to La Ronde (2021), he has created a series of landmark pieces in parallel with his activities as a performer and improviser (notably with Médéric Collignon, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Tino Sehgal). In 2021, Charmatz created La Ronde as part of the event Avant-travaux, le Grand Palais invite Boris Charmatz.