Writer and Musée de la danse associate Gilles Amalvi describes the original production of Enfant, presented at the Avignon Festival and scaled down for Sadlers Wells, as “a piece for 26 children, nine adults, and three machines”.
In the first section, lights go up on the first of these machines, a crane at stage left which is automatically rotating, designed to change direction when it reaches a point of resistance. It moves in silence, connected to rope that is stuck on to tape placed at the front of the stage. It’s as if we are experiencing the final moments of the unwrapping of the performance. Some kind of oversized, retro futuristic gadget. There’s no other sound other than the machine moving and it’s totally enthralling to watch. It could be an installation in its own right but it’s also dance. The machine’s movement is choreographed. The analogue nature of it means that the processes are simple, visible enough that we can understand it in terms of human movement. Finally the machine appears to be reeling in something heavy.
It’s a human dancer but an entirely inert one: sleeping, playing dead. Another dancer is dragged on to the stage and the second machine starts up. This time it’s a L-shaped conveyor that faces out to the audience. The crane drops dancers on to it causing them to move not through their own volition but as determined by the unrelenting industrial cycles of the machines.
On the austere, minimal set, the lowering of inert mammals by pulleys on to conveyor belts has disturbing connotations. There’s something generally industrial about the whole thing but more specifically it called to mind the slaughterhouse for me. Having set up these connections, bringing children on stage seems particularly provocative and, of course, that’s what Charmatz does next. The children are as inert as the adults once were and this time it’s not the machines but the adults who manipulate the children. In making them dance, they act as puppeteers but the effect is the opposite to puppetry: instead of making an inanimate object seem human, manipulating a human child makes them seem more dead. It feels like a grotesque, undignified spectacle.
At this point, I think it’s fair to say that the experience is not a positive one for anyone involved: it’s not enjoyable to watch and must be uncomfortable or boring for the performers (both the puppeteers and the meat puppets). The shift comes though about two thirds of the way through the piece and when it does it’s a shocking, exhilarating moment, even if I have seen it coming. The children come to life. They start by taking on the roles of the adults: puppeteers, getting into small groups to move the big people around. This feels logical but feels like a countergesture to something that had already happened. Much more thrilling is what happens next: the children start to dance. While they have clearly been given simple choreographic instructions (a kind of marching rhythm and a sound they have to make), with children as young as five, it’s inevitably a glorious kind of chaos.
The trajectory of the piece came across as a gradual relinquishing of control. From the factory to the playground, it moves from somewhere terribly dark and automated to a space of play and imagination. Olivier Renouf’s rumbling ambient music gives way to the piping of Erwan Keravec, drawing the children behind him as if away from Hamelin to the mountains but, having taken control of this space, the children have the power to change the way the story goes and Keravec ends up strung up by the crane, piping upside down as the next generation occupy the space beneath him.
William Drew’s interview with Boris Charmatz.