With Enfant at Sadlers Wells at the beginning of last year, Boris Charmatz developed something of an overnight cult following in London. While he was established enough in France to be given the directorship of a National Choreographic Centre (which he transformed into the Musée de la Danse) and given headline slots at Avignon Festival, his work had hardly been seen in the UK, certainly not on the scale of Enfant. The excitement of that show for audiences was both in the show itself but also, for many, in the discovery of a major theatre artist who arrived as if fully formed, many years down the line of his own artistic enquiry. It might be like suddenly coming across the work of a great novelist or a great band. You ask yourself: where did this come from?
The immediate reaction is a desire to familiarise yourself with their back catalogue. For just over a week this May, Sadlers Wells and Tate Modern worked together to present Musée de la Danse in London, giving audiences an opportunity to do just that. Throughout the weekend of the 16th and 17th, the Tate Modern was taken over by the Musée de la danse with chances to see work going back to the mid 1990s as well as more recent pieces. In some cases, the pieces had been adapted so that visitors could participate themselves.
I arrived late to the Charmatz party this year so went straight to Sadlers Wells on the Sunday evening to see Aat enen tionen from 1996. When the house opens, we are guided through front of house to back of house and out on to the stage itself. In the middle of the stage is a steel structure: a kind of tower with three levels. A performer on each level, unable to see one another: Charmatz himself at the bottom, Matthieu Burner in the middle and Lénio Kaklea at the top. Around them, curving up towards the ceiling are huge lanterns that open up a strange sense of scale. Perhaps it’s the PJ Harvey soundtrack but they seem to suggest bedside lamps of teeange bedrooms.
As we gather around and watch the dancers in their tower, we automatically and obediently find the closest configuration we can to a theatre. We do this wordlessly and without question. A few people take advantage of the fluidity of the contract here, seeing the work from different angles but the vast majority remain fixed and at a respectful distance from the performers. As we watch them, their movements suggest they are not here to impress us. To start with they seem to just be warming up, getting themselves ready. What for? They’re livelier now, limbering up, more responsive to the music, still not performing though. Or perhaps they are. Lightly, like people at the edge of the crowd at a gig. Half dancing. Showing they’re into it even though they’re not about to throw themselves into the mosh pit. Kaklea removes an item of clothing and drops it off the top level. The other two follow. This isn’t improvised, you start to realise, but at the same time they cannot move together because they cannot see each other. There’s a freedom to what they can do within their structure but it’s a limited one. They need each other. They can only go so far alone.
The clothes falling, the feet slamming, rattling the structure: these are straws that they clutch on to, the lights in the dark. As Polly fades out, we are left with the slams of limb on metal, with the breath of the dancers. They sprawl across the floor, finally reaching out with their hands over the edge of the metal but their hands are not met by another. It’s intense to the point of beind difficult to watch at times. It feels raw. When the curtain call comes and the three dancers join together, I feel a palpable relief. While Enfant had started with dark and disturbing imagery and moved into something joyous and anarchic, Aat enen tionen feels bleak and relentless. It’s dance in the panic room.
Manger is Charmatz’s latest work and it’s performed in the same reconfigured Sadlers Wells, albeit without the tower and lanterns and with seats. As we enter the space, we’re told to avoid walking on the stage. This strikes me as a little precious until the performance begins and I realise there’s a very good reason for the request. Fourteen performers enter, carrying with them several A4 sheets of rice paper each. They place these sheets on the floor next to them and proceed to tear strips off the paper and eat them. As the performance goes on, some of them will attempt to swallow their big toes and others will actually be licking the floor.
Despite the title, manger isn’t just about eating. If it were, it would be all too easy to reduce as being a comment on a culture of consumption. Instead, Charmatz uses the mouth as the focal point for the piece: everything the mouth can do. As a piece of dance, it opens up questions about the uses of the mouth we expect from dancers. We don’t expect to see dancers eat on stage certainly but we may tolerate them speaking under certain circumstances. If they are going to sing though, shouldn’t they be singers? If they are going to act, shouldn’t they be actors? We expect them to breath, of course, but becoming aware of a dancer’s breath can feel invasive, can’t it? Why draw attention to the effort and control that breathing is such an important indicator and function of?
For most of the performance, the performers don’t appear to be “dancing” in the way we might normally imagine professional dance. They are moving certainly but these are not the rigid, industrial gestures of the adult dancers in Enfant. Drawn forward by their mouths towards each others’ bodies, they resemble dogs, reptiles, goats or snails. Anything but domesticated, anyting but civilised, anything but human. Like toddlers, they try to put everything in their mouths to see what it will taste like.
It’s a performance that has a lot to say about dance, about choreography but it is not an echo chamber for the dance world. The chanting, the eating, the tasting of own flesh and of others’: all this suggests a ritual. The sounds the performers make draw on musicians as diverse as Aesop Rock, Daniel Johnston, Legeti and the late French poet Christophe Tarkos. Each song is rendered into something carnivalesque by this collection of toeswallowing revellers. They are not singers and they are not singing “well” in the sense we might expect it. They may be dancers but they are “dancing” in the way we might expect them to either. It’s a spectacle of bodies, each with a mouth, a tongue, a sound and a personality. Though we aren’t participating ourselves, it feels like the invitation Charmatz is making is one of levelling, of a basic shared humanity. The joy of eating, singing, moving together. The joy of having a mouth.
A few days later, I get a message saying that Charmatz has injured himself so the second a final performance of his duet with Anne Therese de Keersmaeker (also at Sadlers) has been cancelled. I’m disappointed not to get to see it, of course, but it also feels strangely inevitable for an artist constantly pushing bodies to their extremes, reimagining them as both instrument and material. His work makes us aware of what it means to have a body in a way few living choreographers do.