Review: Boris Charmatz & Musée de la danse - Aatt enen tionon - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 17 May 2015
Reviewed by Donald Hutera - Tuesday 19 May 2015

Boris Charmatz 'Aatt enen tionon' Photo: Marc Domage

It’s not every day (or two, in fact) that a major art institution and tourist attraction is invaded by an art form, but that’s what happened with If Tate Modern was Musée de la danse? Masterminded by the French dancer, choreographer and, as the promotional material put it, ‘agitateur’ Boris Charmatz, this generous, unpretentious and enriching event was a take-over of the gallery’s Turbine Hall that spread upwards like a wonderful infection throughout three floors of the permanent collection. Among the many things I loved about it was that it was free; a mix of both professionals and non-professionals (including any members of the public who might want to join in at designated times); and a recognition of the embodied knowledge that dancers carry with them like a personal archive.

The latter idea was the impetus behind 20 dancers for the XX Century, which found dancers of all stripes doing their extremely varied and deeply individual things in the same rooms as works by the likes of Josef Beuys, Cy Twombly and Gerhard Richter. Marvellous it was, too, although I confess I spent time with less than half of them simply because I didn’t have enough time to spend. But almost all of it I’d rate as quality time. That, too, was part of the glory of the entire enterprise: the knowledge that someone else just as gifted but totally unique might be just around the corner, or on the floor below, and yet few, if any, visitors could possibly take it all in but that’s perfectly okay because whatever you experienced was so meaningful or engaging or beautiful or fun…

Perhaps it’s somehow inevitable that any immediate follow-up to such an event would be a bit of a let-down. I’m referring to the one-night only showing at Sadler’s Wells of Aatt enen tionon which was also a part of the small but enlightening season designed to showcase Charmatz’ always questioning, often highly collaborative work and ideas. Premiered in 1996, this 40-minute trio with the funny-peculiar title is set in a completely open-sided square tower with each dancer confined to his or her own platform. In this showing it was Lenio Kaklea at the top, Matthieu Burner below her and Charmatz at the bottom, with the 200 or so chairless audience members free to distribute themselves as they chose around the central structure and light supplied by three very large, balloon-like lamps positioned at different levels. It’s also worth noting that the tower was set on the Wells’ mainstage with the safety curtain lowered, thus turning a possibly familiar playing area into an incredibly high-ceilinged studio space.

I’d seen the piece before about a decade ago during the Edinburgh International Festival where I remember that it pretty much knocked my socks off. It certainly knocked the dancers’ socks off, as well as their sweatpants and knickers. By this I mean that fairly early on all three begin to unceremoniously strip off their clothing, first the footwear and then the lower-torso coverings, discarding each piece onto the floor until each dancer was clad in just a tight white t-shirt.

Setting the partial nudity aside for a moment, the impression was of people in cells – much as anyone who resides in a block of flats or row of connecting dwellings lives, near yet so far from neighbours whom you may never know. Immediately the sense of something private made public (by virtue of our presence) was in place. The notion of contiguous isolation was strong enough to render the genitalia-baring not so far-fetched and even natural, rather than an effected stunt designed to shock or titillate. The latter isn’t what Charmatz’s brand of – okay, let’s label him – French conceptualism is about anyway. Among his chief intentions is a continual testing form and presentation; he’s asking what dance is and can be, but always from a perspective rooted in the human body. In such a context the semi-nudity evinced here somehow seems more transgressive than total nudity. It’s a conceal/reveal (although, in truth, perhaps more of the latter than the former) that puts me in mind of an argument between Julianne Moore and Matthew Modine in Robert Altman’s 1993 film adaptation of Raymond Carver’s writings, Short Cuts. In the scene they’re getting dressed prior to the arrival of guests for dinner and, taken by the heat of the moment, Moore’s character temporarily stops donning her clothing in order to make a verbal point.

So, what was Charmatz’s point? All the tenets of (modern and/or post-modern) dance – that is, of bodies in time and space – were well-defined. The movement itself was set yet raw, vigorous yet rigorous; jumps, for instance, that landed in hard, collapsing slams onto the floor and continued into rolling, or off-kilter spins with an un-formalised hip hop feel. Sometimes legs were lifted into the air; Charmatz himself was long-limbed enough for his feet to touch and rest upon the ceiling of his unwalled yet box-like ‘cage.’ Everything the dancers did was inescapably contained within the limitations of each platform. Now and again they looked out as if at us. Although they couldn’t see each other there were moments of alignment, for example when all three stood facing the same direction with hands placed before the crotch. Without making a big deal of it, and sans any overt attempt at drama, these patently well-trained and fit dancers suggested that things might indeed be happening to them internally as people. Their moves and presence carried at least a whiff of what I’ve sometimes referred to as ‘asylum behaviour’ – possibly erratic motions, that is, that transmit something psychological or emotional rather than virtuosic or narrative. Relatively brief, quieter passages in both the soundtrack (some full-throttle PJ Harvey tracks, a few vocal bits in which an ‘ah’ or ‘see’ was turned into a long-drawn drone, or silence) and the choreography (e.g., times of stillness or reflection) were paralleled by the occasional dimming and rise of the balloon lights.

There was an honesty about Aatt enen tionon that just about kept pretentiousness at bay (and this despite the air of church-like and almost precious, high-art sobriety among the spectators required to travel from foyer to backstage via passageways located alongside the venue’s auditorium). Still, I was at times quite detached and occasionally even a mite ‘so what?’ about the whole thing. Why, I wonder, did I find it much harder to surrender to this work now than was the case in Edinburgh? Maybe it’s because I knew what to expect, and was somehow inescapably measuring my previous experience against this one. Or is it simply that I’m older and have seen so much more work since then? I don’t necessarily think it’s because Charmatz’s work has dated, or could it be that the art form has itself somehow moved on?

As was the case all those years ago in Scotland, the audience at Sadler’s maintained a respectful distance from the tower (although that was, perhaps, mostly in order to be able to see what was happening on all levels). Almost no one bothered, or needed, to walk around and shift their perspective, as we were free to do; I made one early circuit of the periphery and then stayed put. In Edinburgh, I recall, I was quietly thrilled at the realisation that I didn’t need to move about, that the dance itself allowed my imagination to roam the room and view the tower and its occupants from any and all angles. This time I dallied a little in thoughts of what it might be like for each dancer to physically be where they were, and any risks such restrictions might entail. But that’s about all. I certainly didn’t object to seeing Aatt enen tionon again – in truth, I very much wanted to do so – but I guess you could say for me the thrill was gone.

More in the Musée de la danse in London season:
Boris Charmatz & Musée de la danse manger. 20 May
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Boris Charmatz 7 Amandine Beyer Partita 2, 22 & 23 May

Donald Hutera writes regularly about dance, theatre and the arts for The Times, Animated and many other publications and websites; curates dance/performance for GOlive; is a co-founder of Chelsea Arts Collective (aka CAC) and is a dramaturg/director. Twitter: @donaldhutera

Photos: Marc Domage

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