A storm of movement, violent, breathless, cascading across the stage in a maelstrom of humanity. That was 10,000 Gestures, the show that the acclaimed French dancer, choreographer and director Boris Charmatz created for MIF in 2017. In 2021, he is returning with his innovative new work, Sea Change, designed for the streets of Deansgate and featuring more than 150 Greater Manchester residents.
With over 25 years of experience challenging the boundaries of dance and theatre, Boris Charmatz is known as one of Europe’s most innovative choreographers and has had his work acclaimed internationally; in Paris, Berlin, London and New York. He started out as a student at Paris Opera Ballet School, one of the most prestigious ballet schools in the world, and rapidly gained widespread recognition for his choreography, going on to create performances that were both ambitious and meditative in nature. Many of his works are more at home in a stairwell, on a rooftop or in the wilderness of the outdoors than on a traditional stage in a theatre.
One of his first landmark pieces, Aatt enen tionon, premiered in 1996 and, like with so much of his later work, invited the audience to think, to look closely at the purpose of each movement. Three dancers, isolated on separate platforms on a tower-like structure, contort their half-naked bodies, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes painfully and always parted from each other. Charmatz originally appeared as one of those dancers and the rawness of this performance in the footage can still be felt over two decades later.
The style of his choreography has often been hailed as a radical branch of the 'non-dance' movement. From Aatt enen tionon in 1996 to 10,000 Gestures in 2017, Charmatz has created an array of performances, each with its own distinct character and setting; the leaping, singing ballet Quintette cercle where the music suddenly stops and the movements of the dancers are catapulted from eerie to grotesque, the groundbreaking piece Flip book, that takes David Vaughan’s book Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years and recreates the poses to form a moving diorama, and 20 Dancers for the XX Century, a living museum of dancers, where the audience could walk around the Palais Garnier to find a reenactment of a dance by Isadora Duncan or Merce Cunningham.
These performances over the years have established Charmatz as a revolutionary in his approach to dance. And though they are worlds apart from each other it terms of theme, atmosphere and subject, they all appear driven by the same burning need: to question the art of choreography itself. The audience is never allowed to sit and gawp at the stage, at the beauty of the dancers, to leave their brains by the door and enter a dreamworld; Charmatz seems to want his audience to be alert, aware and inquisitive at all times.
As well as his large body of choreography work, and authoring a series of books on contemporary dance, Charmatz became the director of the Centre Chorégraphique National de Rennes et de Bretagne in 2009 and renamed it Musée de la danse. He was director there for nearly a decade, presiding over, 'workshops, debates, artists and research workers’ residences; offbeat propositions and fantasy collections.' Throughout this period he had a rapid succession of highly acclaimed performances and was commissioned by several major institutions, including MIF.
10,000 Gestures, performed at the disused railway terminal Mayfield Depot in 2017, marked Charmatz’s first Manchester production and was a landmark piece that toured Europe, from Volksbühne in Berlin to the Tate Modern in London. Described by Charmatz as a ‘choreographic forest’, the dancers make gesture after gesture; an arabesque, a jeté. They move in the grip of an unnamed strong emotion, languidly, minutely and the briefness of each movement illustrates how temporary they are – how temporary all dance is. Such a chaotic, strangely structured show is an incredible risk and would be untouchable for many other choreographers. Yet risk and the avant-garde are Charmatz’s bread and butter, and we see this again in his new MIF21 project, Sea Change.
Taking its title from a verse of Shakespeare’s The Tempest that alludes to metamorphosis, Sea Change was created by Charmatz especially for the Festival and takes the shape of a human flip book, a huge human jigsaw, made up of a small group of professional dancers and a long line of residents of Greater Manchester, constantly moving, their gestures evolving in sequence. It is up to the audience to move along the performance in order to fit together the actions of the dancers into the full choreography, experiencing the complete work only inside of their minds.
This exhibition of continuous movement is a touchstone in many of Charmatz’s works, inspired by his fascination with chronophotography, a photographic technique from the Victorian era that captures the phases of a movement, and the work of English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, a pioneer in motion photography and early motion-picture projection.
It’s a different world in 2021 than the one that previous festivals took place in. People have been kept apart by the coronavirus; people who live in the same house, on the same street, in the same city. The lack of touch and proximity to other human beings has been one of the defining issues of recent times. Many of us have spent lockdown watching the world go by, not being able to fully experience and participate in it. Sea Change is a performance designed carefully and creatively for our post-lockdown world; an unfurling of humanity and a welcome back into the city we call home.
Aniqah Choudhri is a journalist from Manchester.