28 November 2010

Boris Charmatz: Levée des conflits

28 novembre, 2010


Boris Charmatz: Levée des conflits; Piece pour 24 danseurs

Theatre de la Ville, Paris

Entering the Théâtre de la Ville last night to a benign free-for-all of open seating for Boris Charmatz’s Levée ds Conflits, I felt like I was returning to a university auditorium in the late 60's-early 70's for a peace rally or anti-establishment by some Yuppie activist. The energy was lively and the audience looked a bit more scruffy and irreverently intellectual than usual. The stage was in a classic state of undressed chic, typical of many contemporary choreographers, with exposed back wall and no side drapery for disguised entrances and exits or added framing.

I had been introduced to Boris Charmatz by Jean-Yves Langlais, the new general director of Cité Intenationale des Arts, where I am presently enjoying a 4-month residency. At the end of our first meeting, Monsieur le directeur handed me Charmatz's book, Je suis une école: Experimentation, Art, Pedagogie. After pursuing more information about this choreographer, I learned that he is known as an iconoclastic master of the new "French vague" and of non-dance movement. His book is a kind of “nomadic and previsionary” report of an interdisciplinary symposium "without end", a discourse to re-define a university without walls, a new form of research and pedagogy that frees the creator from outmoded esthetic or political models.

After the light dimmed, a women in white man's shirt with sleeves rolled and dark leggings or jeans walked up onto stage from the audience, sat on the floor in dancers' 4th position-- as the Copenhagen mermaid might to peer at her reflection from her rock into the cold waters, or a washerwoman to begin her scrubbing. The lighting reflected her form off the surface of the polished vinyl dance floor. She began a circular motion as if polishing a small area of floor in front of her lowered gaze. This led to a sequence of non-dance activities that transitioned seamlessly one into the other: coming up on both knees, she fanned her buttocks back and forth then slowly sat back on her haunches to swat herself with loose arms and hands while flinging her torso side to side, then stepped out into a slow lunge and ski step in place with angled arms as if she was on a Nordic Track exercise machine. By then, she had been joined on stage by a few other randomly dressed people who were trying their 70's best not to look like dancers. Somewhat evenly timed between their entrances up onto stage, they followed their leader's sequence of movements to commence what had immediately and very obviously become a "grand fugue".

For the remaining, seemingly interminable 90 minutes, we followed all 24 performers as they also walked up onto the stage and completed from 5-6 repetitions of the entire sequence, each one sealed in their own vacuum of concentrated effort, apart and independent from each other yet almost instantly becoming representations of a shared system, a formal exercise, a scheme that was being "staged" for the benefit of an enamored fan club. 

At times it became a sweaty, penitential ritual of whipping, rolling, spinning; only in one segment did one performer actually make contact or touch another, pushing or dragging the person next to them in the sequence in falls flung sideways to the floor. Out of a faint, collaged sound score of radio electronics came the intonations of a piano or guitar being tuned, and then the sublime strumming of Henry Cowell's Aeolian Harp. I was suddenly pulled back in my seat and asked to perhaps feel something or sense a point of view: a sentiment, a grand metaphorical statement, a philosophical distancing from which to ponder the human comedy, the landscape of human existence as it cycled itself into a state of existentialist soup, post-modern resignation, or a slavish (tongue-in-cheek?) homage to a bygone esthetic era, a celebration of la nouvelle vague française, of stylish boredom as an exquisite counterpoint to intellectual masturbation. And then the first performer was back on the floor in starting position, beginning the entire sequence over again. OK. Dance/life is about remembering, going back in time while going forward. A dance/theatre moment of Proustian reverie for the post-Einsteinian era?

As the 24 dancers exhausted themselves together with a seemingly careless precision that was a testament to much rehearsal and good proprioceptive skills, my mind began playing games on me. Perhaps this was precisely the choreographer’s intention. I saw a general scheme acted out that was providing me snapshots or brief sequences of movement tableaux, of overlays of activities left open-ended for free interpretation: a cross-section of multiple views of the same narrative attenuated over time and space, a compositional delight of simultaneous events here, a Merce tribute or is it Dear Yvonne Rainer, we remember you, over there, and all the while my mind cataloguing threads of the shared sequences in my own personal accumulation (Hi, Trisha!) so that I actually believed I too could get up there and do it. Near collisions, but never a false move, rehearsed to actually produce a sense of harmony, of complicity, or was this the choreographer's post-camp (Barthean?) re-staging of Olivia de Havilland's nightmare in The Snake Pit?

My mind continued to spin its disjointed rhetoric: so this is democracy, where everyone is invested with the illusion of individual freedom, (Yes, the movement was derived from the cast's own contributions, not the choreographer's), and I am momentarily lulled into a state of Emersonian Transcendentalism by the sheer Grand Central Station magnificence of the scale and pervasiveness of it all. Isadora's "I see America (France? Europe? the world? ) dancing". Yet in the next moment it looked more like the tyranny of theory, of Charenton's inmates under de Sade's dictatorship performing for the haute bourgeoisie, or a 21st century diorama/remake of the grand parade at the Hall of Evolution as performers dragged themselves counterclockwise in a whirlpool of futility, straight out the end of the second section of Paul Taylor's Esplanade (but that was to Bach). I thought to myself, I AM free to leave. Why don't I? But I stubbornly held out, naively determined to learn something, to find out what happens, to learn the proof of the proposition or theorem proposed by this wunderkind of French dance. 

The performers, slowed by exhaustion, began to draw inwards and perform their phrase in compressed form, clumping together, like a dying breed, not with a bang but a whimper, or the homeless strewn all over Paris at night. Chords struck like a bell ringing an endless succession of hours; I imagined so many migratory patterns etched out on the floor before me, and always back to zero. And finally they all caught up to each other, almost but not quite in unison, a thickening and replication of images under mood lighting, like Impressionist painting. I flashed a memory of dancing in a 1970 Anna Sokolow anti-war protest piece in which all of us 30 dancers violently, frantically performed the same phrase in a loosely knit-together canon. And then came a moment in the sequence with all the performers kneeling, hands glued between thighs, a pleading remorse reading in their shoulders tautly drawn together: a kind of poignancy. I thought of Ann Carlson's large cast of her 1990 work, Flag, dancers strewn across an American flag the size of the entire stage… or the physically and spiritually exhausted marathon dancers in the film, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? or Michael Clark's take of the film for Alexander McQueen's London fashion show not so long ago…

And suddenly the first woman actually stopped spinning madly, and walked off the stage! Others followed, one at a time, when they arrived at that same moment in the sequence. I thought, beyond Sartre, beyond, Camus, they have free will! They can exit! The last man stopped spinning with flailing arms overhead, focused offstage then walked deliberately off, as we watched him open the stage door and disappear. Lights faded to black, and the audience was already applauding madly.

It seems the French love to stage demonstrations, whether grèves, or street protest marches, as I witnessed crossing the Hôtel de Ville on my way to the theater, with its chanting, bullhorns, women intoning together the wailing of a siren. or, like Louis XIV and his court, they love a grand systems demonstration like Levée des conflits, and other blown-up retro spectacles of bygone modern dance rages, when indoor and outdoor body mappings of formalist principles or the breaking of a former set of principles, such as the Judson Church gang's task-oriented escapades, Rainer's Trio A, (her movement manifesto to a non-dance approach in defiance of theatricality and "dance"), were de rigueur as in the late 60's, early 70's East and West Coasts, (and a few university campuses in between), USA.

My last looks, and then silence: We see a massing of Lilliputians, across a plain or in a coliseum, following like puppets the directions of the emperor's (the one with the new clothes) favorite, for the amusement of an audience eager to please themselves with a kind of connoisseurship/one-upmanship that proposes to to trump the American post-moderns, to make up for the lost time of their own arrested development by applying to the late 20th century dance landscape a cynicism masking as authenticity, a shallow device pretending to be a theory of visuality, a superiority of wit to top, no, erase, the past. A Grosse Fugue for gross pigs, an audience easily fattened on fashionable political/esthetic theories who wallow vicariously while perched above a sty filled meaningless but sweaty activity. A fond  "Fuck You!" to dance as we have come to know it, to its dying illusion of innovation and progress, or, as John Cage said, "I have nothing to say, and I am saying it".