Boris Charmatz is a nonconformist performer and choreographer who conceives dance as a mental space to share with others. He seemed very comfortable while telling me about the importance that dance has had in his life; he was a very shy kid, and without dance he wouldn’t have been able to talk and express his ideas. Now he actively explores new possibilities for including dance in art museums. He even founded one himself—the Musée de la danse in Rennes, France—to fight the preconceived idea of a museum as a fixed space, unable to host the freer concepts of dance and movement. So what exactly can a dancing museum be?
Boris explained how he’s trying to figure that out, through the projects he creates with the artists involved in the Musée de la danse. But there are still more questions than answers.
Everything I’ve read about you confirms that you’re a nonconformist. Do you agree, or do you think you’re just a person with a lot of questions?
I think I like being a nonconformist, but I wasn’t looking for it. My parents had a huge library; we had plenty of books, the complete works of de Sade and Balzac. As a child I wasn’t very attracted to normal books or films for kids. I’m used to saying that I saw my first Disney movie at 22 years old! I know it seems like a joke but it’s true. I was just very comfortable with Pasolini or Tarkovsky or Fassbinder, to mention some. I remember when I was maybe 26 or 27, I saw a solo dance by a friend of mine, and then I asked him: “This pop music, it’s great, what is it?” and he answered, “You didn’t recognize Madonna?!” I’m not making fun of myself, but my culture wasn’t a choice. It didn’t come out of wanting to break the rules or provoke. It was how I was raised; my education was modernity, improvisation, avant-garde. So maybe that made me a nonconformist.
And what was the first Disney movie?
I can’t remember…. Everybody’s always talking about Fantasia. I’ve never seen Fantasia, even though now, with my children, I’ve gotten more into Disney. We were living next to Annecy, a small town in the Alps, and there was a fantastique animation film festival. I knew everything about the Russian and Czechoslovakian animated movies, and nothing about the American ones.
What kind of education and experiences did you have early on?
Actually, I was educated in a classical, normal way. I wanted to dance a lot, so I had to go to Paris because it had the only school with part-time dance and part-time academics. It was hard for me. At 17 I started to dance professionally, but I tried to study more because I was too young to work at that age. But I have to say that I consider what was happening outside, in the streets, to be part of my education also; I was born in 1973, and in the same decade there was a big wave of modern dance in France.
Do you think that, when you were in dance school, you already had an idea of what kind of dancer you would be?
When the leftist government came into power in France in 1981, Jack Lang became Minister of Culture, and in one day he doubled cultural projects: visual arts, fashion, modern dance… so for me it became clear that I could be a professional artist in contemporary dance without working in bars at night to survive. I was fixated on the work of Dominique Bagouet, a French choreographer who died in 1992. I really loved his work, and I really wanted to work with him as a dancer. That was my goal: when I was young I had it clear that I didn’t want to be a choreographer, but a dancer.
Is this the reason why, with your own project—the Musée de la danse—in your hands, you’re still collaborating with other choreographers as a performer?
On the one hand, I founded the Musée de la danse, which is actually made up of many projects by many artists. I’m in charge of it, along with Martina Hochmuth and the whole team.
On the other hand, I’m a dancer. When I worked with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker on Partita No. 2 for violin by Bach, as a choreographer I wouldn’t have known what to do; the music is a masterpiece, I’d have been lost! But as a dancer it gave me tremendous pleasure to perform for her. So I think this is why I do it; out of pleasure. For me, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Tino Sehgal are currently the best artists in our field. If they decide to work with me, I feel lucky. So yes, it’s about pleasure, and it makes me feel like I’m kind of “on holiday” from my own work, and then when I come back to my job I’m more relaxed, with fresher ideas. It helps me, I need to do it. I like to dance—this is my position in the world.
You’ve done an endless number of projects, very different from one another. Can you choose 3 signature works that have marked your professional path?
First, I would mention a very strange project from 2000 called héâtre-élévision. At the time it was my biggest project, and the one with the biggest budget too. We worked for more than 6 months on it, but in the end it was a very small project. We pretended it was a live performance; it’s an installation for just one viewer at a time, with a TV and a fake piano. The performance was reduced to a film, and the movie reduced to a TV show, but for me it’s a theater piece. I love this project. I still think it’s one of my favorites.
I would say my last piece, because I’m into it now. It’s called 10,000 gestures, and it’s a project with a lot of dancers on the stage—twenty-five. It’s a real storm of gestures; there really are ten thousand. Each dancer has his own gestures and nobody else repeats the same ones, so you have the feeling that it’s disappearing forever.
No two spectators see the same thing, so it’s kind of a different show for everyone.
As a viewer you have to accept that you’ll miss a lot of what is happening in front of you. Even I, as the choreographer, can’t control it, because it’s too quick. It’s a tempest of gestures; you see it, but you can’t catch it. Maybe the person seated next to you starts laughing but you don’t know why. I’m also fond of this piece because it has the best team of dancers I’ve ever worked with—they’re fantastique.
And the last one?
I would mention the one we did in Tate Modern. We invaded the London museum for two days with a lot of exhibitions, projects, and performances by the Musée de la danse. It was called If Tate Modern was Musée de la danse? and for two days it wasn’t Tate Modern anymore. It was a huge project; we had 55,000 viewers in only two days. It’s nice to mention this project because inside of it there are all the other works [Ed.: Levée des conflits, Adrénaline: a dance floor for everyone, manger, 20 Dancers for the XX Century, and expo zéro, to name a few]. Yes, an ocean of projects!
How does performing make you feel?
Dance makes me happy, even when the piece is hard, or strange, or dark. I remember the first piece I choreographed on my own, Aatt enen tionon. We had three platforms, one above the other, and we were half naked, with only a t-shirt. It’s from ’96 probably, a really long time ago. After the performance, viewers came up to me saying, “Wow! It was really intense, hard, are you ok?” But the performance made me super happy. So sometimes you do a very dark piece, but inside the feeling is different.
What do you think of performing the same choreography many years later? You know: a piece of art is always the same, a piece of dance is never the same. Did this happen to you, maybe with À bras-le-corps?
When we did À bras-le-corps for the first time, I was 19 and Dimitri Chamblas, my partner for this choreography, was 17. Nobody knew us, but we believed in it. We thought, “Next year we’re gonna perform this piece again, and then again, and in 20 or 40 years, we’ll still be performing it.” I actually still do it, and it’s really funny to feel that this piece lasts forever, even though you never know what might happen in the future. I like this contradiction in dance, that something you think is very ephemeral can come back the next day and for the following 40 years—although it’s different each time. On the contrary, you think that a painting is forever, but it’s not. If you think of dance as a permanent metamorphosis, then you can accept it. I like to think long-term with dance, even though it’s so momentary.
You do a lot of different things, and this could suggest a sort of lack of continuity in the bigger picture of your work. What do you think?
The format might be different, but the questions are the same. I think my body of work is like the piece 10,000 gestures: people doing many different actions. But if you look at it from a wider angle it makes sense. I like to think that dance and choreography lead me to very different formats for pieces: TV, exhibitions, theater. And in a way I like them all.
You never know where life will take you, and I want my work to be in the context of now, where things happen. If it were isolated, it would remain the same no matter what happens. Take, for example, the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack. One could say “Ok, I’m going on, I can do my work… but, fuck, my feelings are different now.” I feel a need to claim the streets and public spaces; we have to question our togetherness, not only in the theater, not only in the museum, but also in public spaces.
How did you end up in Rennes? Did you have a vision of the Musée de la danse before you got there? What is its primary function?
I wanted to start the Musée de la danse. It was an urgent question for me. We have theaters and dance schools, but we don’t have an alternative, fluid space for questioning and activating history, thinking, improvising, and pushing “the limits” of dance. We were invited to this very strange building in Rennes and I thought, “Ok, let’s try!” And we went from there. At first there wasn’t a project; we even didn’t know how to start, and it was really experimental. This was similar to the development process of certain pieces, like for example 20 Dancers for the XX Century, that started with nothing more than an idea I had in mind; it’s a sort of archaeological excavation of the memory, a living collection of solo pieces that interact in a different way with the space every time. [Ed.: Each dancer performs a piece—from the last century of the history of dance—that goes through a reinterpretation of memory, where the body itself acts like a museum, made up of gestures and recollections from the past.] But when it started to take form I realized that there was more to this project than I thought; it was fundamentally important to talk to the invited dancers, think together about what to do, and develop it.