Following internationally acclaimed choreo-grapher and dancer Boris Charmatz’s trajectory over the last decade has been an utter pleasure. His interest in movement and choreography and his fresh approach to collectively owning dance, attracts interest of not only dance festivals, but also established art institutions. His practice is a collision, his approach is always twofold – there is no given colour that is either bold or pale, no dance form that is fully defined and complete. Boris responds to my questions with clarity and eloquence – a challenge for many practitioners in the field! Starting with the body, he moves onto dance and the pleasure of movement, being within one’s self, in one’s own environment. Collating responses and cumulating gestures prove to be the permeable dimension of his practice. Context, location and mise-en-scènes become contradictions in his practice, as evoked in the following conversation that has no starting point and proceeds as a wave in an ocean of sensuous thinking.
Fatos Ustek: Boris, what is body?
Boris Charmatz: People are a priori body-orientated. Dancers are regarded as more in their bodies than anyone else. Sensuality around dance starts with showing something you do. Showing your body move, while displaying your mental space. It brings together the intention and the opposition in how you have constructed it as an experiment. I was very much interested in Merce Cunningham’s technique, and I had the chance to gain access to his writings and books. This experience was like accessing the body through writing and reading.
Fatos: Displaying bodies in your work is very important, showing ways of being, relating to the world through gestures, through social and cultural positions. This has been a common thread throughout your practice. But alongside bodies, where else does dance happen?
Boris: Dance does not happen in the dance studio. It happens everywhere and can happen anytime. It may be happening now while we are talking about dance. I am interested in doing things that are not only body-orientated practices. I had the pleasure of getting in touch with Yvonne Rainer through Catherine Wood and her writings. Rainer’s approach amplified my excitement towards stage practices and theatre studio as a medium. Through talking, reading and remembering, dance became possible. Through the choreographer who is composing on stage – at least it is not how I think of choreography – you have to step inside, in the fire, without being aware of how you look, behave and react.
…You are trying virtuosic gestures, then you try the political gestures, then you try sexual gestures, and then you try obscene gestures and then you try invisible gestures and then you try intimate…
Fatos: You mention your interest in indirect means of understanding sensuality. You have been evolving your thoughts around that. I want to refer to the 10000 gestures (2017) in that regard. You open the ground to multiplicity, but how much do you control and how much of it do you not control? I mean, what is the experience of sensuality as a means of control and the myth of letting go, the moment of ecstasy? It’s not only that crescendo moment. It’s a continuous negotiation. In the case of nudity, it is like being aware you’re nude while being unaware of it and being absent.
Boris: You think that usually a choreographer is someone who is controlling what is happening on stage. That’s the idea. He’s writing. He’s deciding the movements, the gestures. And somehow, I cannot truly explain, but my whole work was about: it’s not how I feel it, how I experience it nor how I want it to be. Because I did many pieces when I was part of them as a dancer and then, if you’re inside, you don’t see it from outside. You are in the heat of the fire. So, you’re not experiencing the ‘how it looks’ question so directly. Even in 10000 gestures I must admit it’s one of the things that brought me the most pleasure, especially because I made choices. When dancers show me a new movement, very often they will give a cue for the next gesture they are thinking of making and sometimes it slips out of my attention to evoke my interest at a later stage. This way, I see things that I never saw or that I never memorised or that I don’t know. I get to enjoy this piece maybe even more than other pieces of mine because if I let myself lose control a little bit then I see things differently each time. Especially since one second contains fifty different gestures. And you see someone and then someone else and there is something very sensual for me. Like you said, letting go or accepting that you are not controlling and then what you see is something you like, or you hate. I’m not in love with everything we are doing. It’s a process, but things are coming to me with a sense of surprise. The most important thing is that the dancer in the piece is working through all the spaces he or she could. You are trying virtuosic gestures, then you try the political gestures, then you try sexual gestures, and then you try obscene gestures and then you try invisible gestures and then you try intimate. Maybe the sensuality comes from these shifts, instead of coming from this is sexual or this is violent. Maybe the signification and the power of the piece comes from this permanent shift, this search for something new, that you crave. Change is the political motto. It’s only a one hour piece so you’re not changing everything. The longest gesture in the piece lasts ten seconds. If you say, make love in the piece, it takes one second. So, it’s a quick killing. But I like that, it’s almost like just before dying you see your entire life. In one minute, you see everything, and I have no idea if it’s true or not or if people are exposed to that. It’s not my point. It’s something where you see your whole life and all your desires in that compressed moment. And there is sensuality in that.
When we perform in theatres, as a one-hour piece, you cannot see all that is happening on stage. The viewer needs to organise his or her own dramaturgy. And some people find it funny, some people find it dramatic, but for some people it’s unbearable. And what I like is that at the end there’s a joy in not knowing and and in organising the collection of gestures. They accumulate like a monument: a monument that is erased as soon as you perform it. There is for me a sensual feeling or something very pleasurable.
Fatos: But then there’s also the force of the collective, something that is beyond you, something different happens to all the dancers. And of course, you as the choreographer are a reference point to the piece that receives contributions from everyone involved. This increases the tension of knowing and not knowing, also liking or not liking, approving or not approving, feeling comfortable or feeling endangered.
Boris: This is something I love in this piece. Usually as a choreographer, you receive continuous challenges. For instance, you think of a duet to take place at some point in the piece, and then you must allocate who is more likely to want to do it. Will it be a man to man or a woman to woman or vice versa? Let’s say you have chosen the dancers, but then why this one instead of another one? What about the lines of attraction? Very often it’s my own gaze and taste. I choose to want a certain coupling. However, the nature of the piece allows itself to have permutations, as neither the places nor choreography are fixed. The only thing that flows are the cues to keep the continuity of dance. For instance, one dancer might end up dancing with person A, on the next evening in which the work is performed they might end up dancing with person B. There’s something that is liberating in this; emancipating instead of thinking what kind of contact we organise between people. We flip it and we do it. Ah! It has something that is a little bit similar to the Flip Book project we did at Tate Modern in 2012. We chose not to be stuck in history in the sense that we flip through archival pictures to enliven them. So it’s not the book as a sacred object, a photography or picture as a sacred moment because what we are doing is on the one hand making every picture live. We embody the archive or at the same time we flip through pages. I like this sense of fragility; it is ephemeral and concrete. It has to do with sensuality and also with the politics of contact.
Fatos: It’s very interesting. It becomes almost a vertical and a horizontal relationship. Vertical in the sense that to find yourself you actually need to go back to the gestures. Whenever you feel limited something else might come out and then you find out about your sensitivities, sensuous tensions, way of being intimate or relating to intimacy. The horizontal comes forward because the points of contact are in flux, to form an extension or that kind of a spatial relationship. It’s almost like a jellyfish that contracts and expands to move in water. Amidst all this, what is touch?
Boris: Jean-Luc Nancy wrote fantastic books on contact. It’s complex to define touch. Let me give you a performative example, where someone is sitting on a chair and you can’t touch him or her. We actually realised this as a piece at a gallery in London a while ago, where we ask the visitors to sit on a chair. Midi and then another dancer, let’s say me, improvised how to not touch this person, asking they close their eyes, to not move or even try not to react. You think there is no contact and they don’t see you – that there is no relation, but of course there is one. You could think you could do many things because they can’t see you. But you discover very quickly that it’s very hard to do something without their notice. It’s central that there’s no touch or gaze. If I drink water, we hear the bottle opening, the water flowing. There is even maximum contact without physical exchange. Sometimes when you suppress touch the idea of touch becomes one of burning.
Another piece of mine called Aatt Enen Tionon (2015) had a three-level platform on which each dancer is isolated. It was based on the assumption that there is no sensuality between us because we don’t see or touch each other. We are separated. We are put on a vertical plane. They are organising how the three bodies are forming one body. Then we don’t see the other, I guess. Where are they? They are absent present – they are absent physically, I don’t see them, but they occupy my head completely. There is more to it. It could be more contact almost as if there is a physicality of encounter. Sometimes, we hold each other’s hands, or we smile at each other. We hold or embrace or kiss. Sometimes there’s more in kissing each other, but we are onstage and we are professional dancers and thus kissing doesn’t change anything. However, in Aatt Enen Tionon we don’t kiss at all. We don’t touch, we don’t do the same gestures. We don’t even know where the other dancers are. Then this tension of guessing becomes more intimate and stronger than an actual embrace. I thought about this piece as being anti-community, splitting the body, etc. At the end of the process I think it’s more of a collective work in which contact and touch were more central than I thought.
In a way I like contradictions. When you realise an idea, it is as if you find it is the opposite of what you had expected. Then you move on.
Fatos: I think in that sense, especially if you’re talking about that kind of sensuous space: absence and presence like forces that know each other or the absence of physicality that some person might feel the same intense feelings as the presence of that presence of that thing.
Boris: That’s also literature. I come from a literature background. Even when I was living with my parents we would see exhibitions together, visit theatres, attend music and dance events. I was marked by all the novels I read, especially correspondences like personal letters. It’s as if I had written the letters. It’s so sensual because they don’t see each other. The desire makes it visible. The distance makes it significant to express. As a reader you enter into their intimacy even more than in a description of their encounter. I got really interested in this kind of protocol. So instead of describing and showing love, flesh, contact and sexuality, other kinds of protocols became more interesting to me.
Fatos: How do you position your audience? For instance, the gaze in sexuality in literature. It’s not only the gaze of the third party or the gaze of a partner in an in an encounter but also the projected gaze. Where does your audience sit in this configuration?
Boris: I like to explore the diversity of gaze. I don’t control the gaze because it is about how people look at a piece: a nude piece or not a nude piece, I do not control completely. I have ideas, but then people are free to think too. I want to believe in that. It’s a strong point of view for me. People think differently. As a choreographer I thought it was not just a formal choice for people to sit in front or stand or move around the work; it changes the perception of a dance entirely. The same dance is not the same anymore. If you sit on hard benches or stone or comfortable seating at an opera, the dance is not the same. You are in a completely different perceptual protocol as a viewer. I really like playing around and changing this format.
Dance de nuit (2016), for instance, takes place at night in a city where we go inside the crowded areas. Even the light moves on the dancers. You don’t see the dance very well as a whole. But we almost touch you or we do touch you. We even move you. This way the crowd becomes part of the choreography. The other two projects were museum projects, where the audience is moving more than the dancers. Even if you have 100 dancers like in the case at the Tate Modern with If Tate Modern was Musée de la danse? (2015), the audience moves the most. It’s a way to enlarge the idea of movement. I started by not being a viewer myself. I was inside the piece. As mentioned, I organised this kind of protocol in Aatt Enen Tionon with the three-level platform. People are around the piece, they can move around and decide where to view the piece. I am always on the lookout for what we are doing and how we could change things. According to the way I look at it and if I’m inside I change things. According to the way I think of the process from inside and out. I’m not saying that this is the only solution. The fact of going out and looking at what we are doing brings a surprise and then I have other ideas on those kind of things.
Fatos: It is part of that natural process of observing social relationships. There is always an interaction, like in conversations. That could be choreographed – the physical, linguistic and intellectual exchanges.
Boris: I’m part of a generation that knows that the gaze changes the object. It’s not only the viewer reformulating the art experience. In a way the viewer produces the art. The context in which you perform changes the feeling and the nature of the work. If you come across dance while looking at a Matisse exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it would be different from seeing dance outside in a park performed on grass under the sun with children playing around than a white cube art gallery; it wouldn’t be the same. Furthermore, I try to recuperate the same movement, same gestures in all contexts, however, it would not be the same work, even as a dancer you would feel different.
I started experiencing that very early because we did the first duet called À bras-le-corps (1993), in a square made of benches or chairs. When we did perform this piece in a church, in a sports hall, in a theatre also the context would change. We performed it when we were nineteen-years-old and now I am forty-five. Of course, everything changed since amidst the fact that it is the same piece. The politics of it are changing. It’s so rich that you can constantly reiterate. Things are changing. They are the same movements we have been doing for twenty-five years but each time we do the dance in a different context. You look at it. It’s the same and very different. That’s what is nice about it.
…I would go into these studios at night dancing naked at thirteen, fourteen years of age…
Fatos: I think it’s really valid for art forms that each context adds to or changes the artwork. When are you most satisfied?
Boris: Recently I had more pleasure with organising, curating. Starting an institution like Musée de la danse brought me a lot of pleasure. But if I think about what I would keep doing forever every day, it is dancing on my own or with others. It is a very specific pleasure in life. Dance allowed me to gain so much. I will always remember that when I was in dance school, I was sweating in dance studios and having difficulty with the technique, questioning my body. Questioning if my lines were good enough for dancing at the opera. Then, without permission, I went out at night to dance in night clubs, which was completely outside the regulations. You could be expelled from school in a second, if you were to be seen there. I would go into these studios at night dancing naked at thirteen, fourteen years of age. I would try things, dance and improvisation at black dance studios, at night, without permission. I think this was the strongest feeling ever.
Fatos: How do you position that the accumulation of knowledge resonant in the body of the dancer, and in the eye of the beholder, alongside the tremendous amounts of documentation?
Boris: What is great in dance is that it is multi-layered, and that you think the movement is authentically yours. But actually, it’s only yours because you were educated to think it’s yours. Your culture is that way. And you feel good that someone else gave you this gesture or that you saw it. The archaeology of movement is multilayered – that is what I love most, and the fact that whatever you do it’s part of a context, the result of an education or in resonance with a specific culture. When you improvise, you actually find historical gestures, and vice versa. It is a palimpsest. Now I’m jumping, but this jump is actually very close to or very connected to that of the teacher who showed me. I love the fact that it’s not only mine or it’s not someone else’s only. That this multi-layered nature of dance resonates, and that you can exploit it endlessly. I am interested in taking risks in dance and choreography. We would spend hours thinking how to go about it. Dance is an important factor for public space not only because it makes everyone happy – dance has a lot to do with war and peace and love – but also because it’s a good medium to of identity as togetherness, or something built on the contact of touch.