Review: Boris Charmatz & Musée de la danse — manger - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 19 & 20 May 2015
Reviewed by Donald Hutera - Tuesday 26 May 2015

Musée de la danse 'manger' at Sadler's Wells, May 2015. Photo: Ambra Vernuccio

Performance reviewed: 20 May

Eating could be deemed one of the most basic forms of self-indulgence. But while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget about performance as another avenue that can entail something similar. The thing is, over the years I’ve perceived varying degrees of honesty in performances that might be branded self-indulgent. The sort I prefer are the ones that are the most convincing at a fundamentally human level, and the most committed.

In any case, both modes of self-indulgence – consuming and performative – had their place in manger, the penultimate work in the recent Boris Charmatz/ Musée de la danse mini-season spilt between Tate Modern and Sadler’s Wells. The act of ingesting food – or, more broadly yet accurately, of using the mouth as a conduit both to insert things into the body and to emit other things, including sound, out of it – were the main areas being explored by Charmatz and a 14-strong cast in this approximately 75-minute piece. The location, as with Aatt enen tionon (reviewed “here”/articles/reviews/boris-charmatz-and-musee-de-la-danse-aatt-enen-tio/), was the Sadler’s stage onto which a limited number of audience members (200 or so) were allowed to tread. We sat behind the safety curtain in two tiers, unequally surrounding a bare central space beneath suspended rods of white light.

The performers, some barefoot and others in trainers or heels, and all clad in often colourful, casual clothing, entered together. Each carried a sheaf of what looked like paper, but for eating rather than writing upon. They stood as separate as islands or, better, cattle and began to chew on what they were holding. Is it impolite to sing with your mouth full? Regardless, eventually they began to hum or otherwise vocalise a 14-part harmony that continued even as each doubled over or bent to the side. Melody broke down into barks, choking sounds, gagging, hiccups and groans in a manner that kept shifting from babyhood to barnyard and back again. This was accompanied by corresponding actions that were infantile, and possibly comic and/or grotesque: individuals attempting to stick a foot, shod or not, into their mouths; a floppy-haired young man in denim shorts cramming his fist into his gob, then briefly sucking his thumb; a big woman (with a big voice, as it turned out) licking her cleavage. Collectively they occupied a kind of puerile yet sexualised dream state by squatting over, curling up foetally or contorting themselves into various positions, both on and off the floor, that were often a reminder of our grosser, animal natures and baser instincts.

An extended spot of atonal humming had me think they were about to be visited by the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, until I realised that it’s the music accompanying that indelible object in Kubrick’s masterpiece – Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna – that was being intoned. The other music drawn upon as the self-generated soundtrack of these lives ranged from The Kills’ Ticket Man and Daniel Johnston’s King Kong to Corelli’s La Folia and Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. It wasn’t exactly of the calibre of Meredith Monk’s work, but no matter. Charmatz’s cast knows the music, as well as their own limitations as individual singers, and it may’ve been this familiarity and acceptance that rendered their varied vocalising so odd and arresting.

A floor-based disco boogie to some sort of French pop song (possibly Sexy Sushi’s je t’obéis) segued into a group recitation of what sounded like a manifesto involving recurring use of the word ‘merde’ (which makes complete sense in terms of a show at least partly inspired by edibility). This, in turn, led to various solo and ensemble activity, e.g., the big woman screaming (her rage was most convincing) as she writhed on the floor, four or five people clumped together like a slow-rolling log, a bit of rough, semi-acrobatic wrestling and more toe gobbling. There was, from some of the performers, some inevitable regurgitation of the rice paper, or else bits of it shaped into gluey little balls that people popped in and out of their mouths. Hands were placed over this cavity, or over one’s bottom, as if people were on the verge of being sick via either orifice. There was also the grabbing of one’s own guts and ribs, with attending howling or scraping sounds. Towards the end there was a fair amount of jumping, plus more vigorous but still agitated, awkward and perhaps what could be dubbed organically dysfunctional moves.

All of this deceptively unstructured asylum behaviour (as I’ve already referred to in my Aatt enen tionon review) was in stark and fascinating contrast to a recent sharing in the Royal Opera House’s Paul Hamlyn Hall of an upcoming production by Protein Dance that may well retain its current work-in-progress title May Contain Food. Plainly Protein’s director-choreographer Luca Silvestrini and his team, including composer Orlando Gough, place a high value on audience engagement. Their collaboration uses text, movement and song to entertain and draw us in interactively. Charmatz and company, on the other hand, are after something more austere, ambiguous and ‘difficult’ in an art-house vein, and for which our presence is required more as witnesses than direct receivers of what’s on offer for our delectation or edification.

I’d say that Charmatz’s gang chewed the scenery only there was, as indicated earlier, none to chew. For my part I maybe didn’t fully embrace manger, perhaps, but I’m glad I experienced it. As in Levée des conflits, the big, swirling group dance that took over half of the Tate’s Turbine Hall, we were observing the passing of energy among human beings only this time manifest vocally as well as physically. There was another reminder at work here of lives lived larger, or more freely, or at greater extremes of expressivity. It wasn’t necessarily such a pretty picture, but it did have its own core of truth.

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. Find him on Twitter: @donaldhutera

Photos: Ambra Vernuccio

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