Archive for November, 2013

L’Affaire Charmatz: Levée des conflits and Flip Book at MoMA

Monday, November 25th, 2013

Musée de la danse. Flip Book. 2008. Concept: Boris Charmatz. Performed in 2012 in the Tanks, Tate Modern. Photo: Tate Photography, Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson. © Tate, London, 2013

Musée de la danse. Flip Book. 2008. Concept: Boris Charmatz. Performed in 2012 in the Tanks, Tate Modern. Photo: Tate Photography, Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson. © Tate, London, 2013

The second two programs of the Boris Charmatz’s Three Collective Gestures series on offer at the Museum of Modern Art were more easily accessible to contemplation and hence to enjoyment than the first (see my previous review in this column). Levée des conflits extended/Suspension of Conflicts Extended (October 25-27, 2013) was performed in the Atrium with its natural light and with spectators gathered on all four sides. Twenty-four dancers worked within the closely circumscribed movement material of 25 choreographic items. Charmatz’s inspiration can be seen to derive from what dance critic and historian Sally Banes identified as “analytic postmodern dance” of the 1970s, which she characterized as “reductive, factual, objective … emphasizing choreographic structure and movement per se” (Terpsichore in Sneakers p. xx-xi). It began as solos but soon led to groups of diverse individuals working their way ultimately into a tight circle yet remaining independent and autonomous as the soundscape became increasingly violent and apocalyptic. The diversity of movement patterns, body types, and approaches to performance was engrossing to observe. From the initial calm there was a buildup not only of numbers but of tension yet this occurred without acceleration. The shifting soundscape by Olivier Renouf, along with a patterning shift in space, was largely responsible for the dramatic change. Charmatz is a wonderful curator in his selection of dancers and his ability to communicate his vision to them.

The program note presents Suspension of Conflicts Extended as a durational piece: “a hybrid form of choreographic exhibition and installation”. While it is true that one can observe it from many angles and, due to repetition, see the same elements in multi-faceted ways as if the dancers were sculptural objects, and while it is also true that almost all the performers appeared to be exhibiting the movement rather than to “performing” it (although exhibition is itself a performance), I was not convinced this work engaged in any particular way with the relation of dance to the museum as much as it was a choreographic work felicitously placed in a museum site.

It was the final work of the series, however, Flip Book (October 1-3, 2013) that reengaged with the theme of dance and the museum and added another layer to the relation of contemporary dance to its own history using the museum as a backdrop. For this work MoMA constructed a stage platform and provided very appropriate lighting and seats on risers, which agreeably transformed the Atrium into a space for performance without it being in any way an explicitly proscenium situation. It was interesting and refreshing to experience the Atrium in this different way so complementary to the performance.

Musée de la danse. Levée des conflits extended/Suspension of Conflicts Extended at The Museum of Modern Art, October 2013. Part of Musée de la danse: Three Collective Gestures (October 18 to November 03, 2013). Dancer: Lénio Kaklea (center). Photograph © 2013 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Musée de la danse. Levée des conflits extended/Suspension of Conflicts Extended at The Museum of Modern Art, October 2013. Part of Musée de la danse: Three Collective Gestures (October 18 to November 03, 2013). Dancer: Lénio Kaklea (center). Photograph © 2013 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Taking as a point of departure David Vaughan’s book Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (1997), which covers the choreographer’s career by decade with many beautiful photographs as well as text, Charmatz has explained the genesis of his idea: “It occurred to me that this collection of pictures was not only about his projects, but that it formed a choreography in itself that had little to do with the work of Cunningham except inasmuch as it replicated certain images. I started to wonder if we could invent a single piece from this ‘score’ of pictures – if the book could in fact be performed from beginning to end.”  The photograph becomes a quote or citation from which to generate a new work, much in the spirit of the recreation of Vaslav Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun – d’un faune . . . eclats — by the Knust Quartet in France (2000). That Charmatz, formerly a member of this group, took this approach makes sense because the Quartet was similarly engaged in finding what dance, removed from us today, could mean now. This implies transformation. The assumption is that a gulf separates the then from the now. As Isabelle Launay has written in an illuminating article about the Knust Quartet, contemporary French dance was involved during the 1990s in a critique of the oral transmission of dance. “The challenge of citation to the prestige of oral person-to-person transmission of a dance has introduced a new way for contemporary artists to relate to and re-embody past works” (Isabelle Launay, “Citational Poetics in Dance: … of a faun (fragments) by the Albrecht Knust Quartet, before-after 2000,” Dance Research Journal 44/2 (Winter 2012)). In Flip Book, the citation is the photograph, the fragment of evidence from which to fashion a new work. While Flip Book appears to be a hommage to Cunningham it bears in actuality very little resemblance to his work.

So, the point is not at all to replicate Cunningham either in movement or as a still image and for this reason Flip Book qualifies more as a reenactment than a reconstruction. As Rebecca Schneider has remarked in her book Performing Remains: “The ‘still’ in theatrical reenactment – especially in the heritage of tableaux vivants – offers an invitation to constitute the historical tale differently” (London: Routledge, 144). While French dancers of the 1960s and 1970s who saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in France at its first appearances there in 1964, 1966, and 1970, made the obligatory pilgrimage to New York as part of their formation, French dance since the 1980s has been standing on its own two feet. It is more than anything else this distance to which Flip Book testifies, even in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner by pretending that movement can be extracted from still images.

Emmanuelle Huyhn and Boris Charmatz in d'un faune…(éclats), photo: Bertrand Prévost

Emmanuelle Huyhn and Boris Charmatz in d'un faune…(éclats), photo: Bertrand Prévost

And perhaps this is, after all, in the avant-garde spirit of Cunningham. Carrie Noland has recently written about the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Legacy Plan, asking: “Can a corpus of controversial works and ideas be preserved for posterity without betraying the fundamental impulse of an intentionally self-exceeding experimental art?” (Carrie Noland, “Inheriting the Avant-Garde: Merce Cunningham, Marcel Duchamp, and the ‘Legacy Plan,’” Dance Research Journal 45/2 (August 2013), p. 85). Noland also explains that Robert Swinston, Director of Choreography of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company since Cunningham’s death, “believes that accuracy in reconstruction is essential” (p. 88). From this perspective, Charmatz’s quotations of the photographs would be considered a slight. Indeed, Alastair MaCauley, in his review of Flip Book, has called it “an act of desecration” (“Using a Familiar Device to Dance out of the Past: Page by Page,” in The New York Times, November 5, 2013).

So, it is interesting to consider Flip Book in the context of two other events in France that also brought Cunningham to public attention in the last year. First, the restaging of a Cunningham work originally commissioned by the Paris Opera in 1973: Un jour ou deux. In an article entitled “L’affaire Cunningham” (Le Nouvel Observateur, October 29, 2012), Raphaël De Gubernatis recalls the daring move to invite Cunningham, John Cage and Jasper Johns to create an evening-length work for the Paris Opera Ballet. Musicians were outraged at Cage and the dancers threatened to strike; the public was turned off. Also in 2012, but unnoticed by the grand public, the world of French contemporary dance was convulsed by the appointment of Robert Swinston as director the Centre National de Danse d’Angers (CNDC), replacing Emmanuelle Huynh, another alumna of the Knust Quartet. A letter sent to the Mayor of Angers (April 26, 2012) protesting this appointment and signed by 667 dancers and choreographers, states: “It seems to us that this change, if it happens, would in fact be regressive, especially if its principle idea is to concentrate on the teaching of a single technique, one aesthetic, one name. Of course, we respect the work of the formalist structure developed by Merce Cunningham in contemporary dance history, but to make it the principal choreographic ‘motor’ of a school and a national choreographic center seems neither opportune nor appropriate. Our dance has never been constructed around the figure of the ‘master’, but instead by a way of thinking, making thought into action, not focused on a single heritage.”

I saw Flip Book twice, and given the variations in the sound score both performances were substantially different. In the second, the dance seemed to come to life among the performers, but also became further distanced from Cunningham’s style to a large degree. Although the sound was at no point Cagean, in the second iteration it was particularly unlike Cage. Premiered in 2009, the year of Cunningham’s death, Flip Book could be considered symptomatic of the situation of Cunningham’s legacy in France today. The passage of time has burnished admiration of his choreography at that bastion of conservatism that is the Paris Opera, but has engendered ambivalence toward the necessity for technique — for the “getting it right” under the watchful eye of the master — that one choreographer’s style inevitably imposes, and with which Cunningham has become associated as a modernist master. It is precisely this ambivalence that Flip Book exemplifies and that, like it or not, is actually its subject.

“The Cunningham Affaire” article in Le nouvel observateur (October 2012)

“The Cunningham Affaire” article in Le nouvel observateur (October 2012)

Boris Charmatz at MoMA: homeless in the museum, or, how to be a school

Friday, November 1st, 2013

French choreographer Boris Charmatz is presenting three different programs this fall at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City under the umbrella title: Three Collective Gestures (October 18-November 3). In many ways, he is taking on the whole contemporary issue of the relation of dance to the museum. In his first offering, 20 Dancers for the XX Century, Charmatz has curated twenty dancers, each one presenting a solo or solos by twentieth-century choreographers. Some of the works are well known and some are relatively unknown. The solos were announced for between noon and 5pm, during which time one could find them in numerous locations in the museum, popping up unexpectedly and serially throughout MoMA’s five floors and garden. This format has its charms: there are architectural cut-out effects in MoMA thanks to which one suddenly spies a space two floors down, particularly interesting to look at when the cut-out frames a dancing body. But, then, dance constitutes a sort of light diversion in the process of navigating the museum, which, in the case of MoMA, is a bustling public space. The format also proved to be chaotic and frustrating of any attempt to learn what one was seeing.

Musée de la danse: Three Collective Gestures

Musée de la danse. 20 Dancers for the XX Century at The Museum of Modern Art, October 2013. Part of Musée de la danse: Three Collective Gestures (October 18 to November 03, 2013). Dancer: Gus Solomons. Photograph © 2013 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

And, the conditions of performance in this setting have to be challenging for the dancers: the floors are hard and in many cases the public streams past the dancer to a nearby staircase. The Atrium, on the other hand, is sufficiently large to constitute an area the dancer can exploit to his or her advantage, but the problem of the unforgiving floor remains here as well. I was most moved, however, by seeing Gus Solomons performing his solo in homage to John Cage in the garden next to a Giacometti sculpture. It made me think that the dialogue between dance and visual art was an important aspect of twentieth-century dance. (A recent exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris pointed to this connection). The historical connection of dance to the visual was also brought home by MoMA’s recent show “The Invention of Abstraction” in which dance – albeit not live dance – was prominently featured.

What this production highlighted is what Ralph Lemon — in discussion with Simone Forti, and Boris Charmatz moderated by Associate Curator (Department of Media and Performance Art) Ana Janevski, (October 25, 2013) – referred to as the dancer in the museum as visitor: “The dancers were visitors,” Lemon said of his own experience of performing in the Atrium, “visitors with agency, but visitors”. “Dance,” continued Lemon, “will always be on the outside. It doesn’t really belong there.”

Here, it should be mentioned that Boris Charmatz’s base in Rennes, France, is called “Musée de la Danse” (Dance Museum). So, there is already with Charmatz a conception of museality that has been transmuted into the reality of dancing. In the discussion Charmatz characterized his appearances at the Museum of Modern Art as an opportunity to place one museum within the other. The idea with respect to 20 Dancers for the XX Century is that dancers enact fleeting interventions in which the collections of MoMA are rivaled by the idea of a museum of dance, one in which the dancer him or herself is not only the “work of art”, but also the explicatory label and/or catalogue: in short, in which the dancer is at once artwork, pop-up materialization of choreography, and a living archive able to inform about it. This all happens within a museum that is operating in an entirely different way. The museum within the museum is not an easy fit. The museum of dance that sits uneasily within the halls of the MoMA is multiple: each dancer him or herself, according to Charmatz, constitutes an autonomous museum. As the program puts it:

Each performer presents his or her own museum, where the body is the ultimate space for the dance museum. Hence there is neither a stage nor a demarcation of performance space.

This sounds better on paper than it looks in practice. But, the idea is that the dance museum is virtual. Charmatz states: “the force of a museum of dance lies especially in the fact that it does not yet exist.” If dance appears as a virtual museum within a non-virtual museum then the transitoriness of dance is being emphatically emphasized. In that same manifesto, Charmatz wrote: “We are at a time in history where a museum in no way excludes precarious movements or nomadic, ephemeral, instantaneous movements.” His is a museum within a museum in the sense of a body in a building, a living and breathing human being among artifacts, energy amidst what could be experienced as the inertia of a material culture of the object. What does it mean to say this moment in history does not exclude precarious movements in the museum? Installation and video have been part of museum exhibition and collection for some time now. The dancer’s body may have an archival dimension – but is this enough since a museum is so much more than an archive and in many senses not an archive – but how does the dancer generate on that basis a space of exhibition adequate to their expressive capacity? This is one of the questions that this event raised but did not answer. But, perhaps to raise it is enough.

I still wonder about how the idea of a museum of dance such as Charmatz conceives it can be manifested in the context of an institution such as MoMA where the artwork has been so carefully and expertly staged in galleries. How can dance as visitor compete with visual art in its home if dance does not occupy a space adequate for its own contemplation? The museum within the museum inevitably suggests a comparison – an agon – in the encounter of two forms of art, the visual and the performative.

Musée de la danse. 20 Dancers for the XX Century at The Museum of Modern Art, October 2013. Part of Musée de la danse: Three Collective Gestures (October 18 to November 03, 2013). Dancer: Meg Stuart. Photograph © 2013 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Musée de la danse. 20 Dancers for the XX Century at The Museum of Modern Art, October 2013. Part of Musée de la danse: Three Collective Gestures (October 18 to November 03, 2013). Dancer: Meg Stuart. Photograph © 2013 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

At times I had the sensation the dancer was challenging the museum as a static space by the intrepid intervention of the moving body – daring, beautiful, theatrical, dynamic, funny — at the museum’s margins and in its very transitional public spaces between galleries or at the base of stairways and escalators. The dancers often took on their marginal status and played it to the hilt. But, this challenge is not of the essence of the desired encounter: the sensation of inferiority at being an artwork as visitor — a turning inside out of the relation between living beings and exhibited objects – leads to certain hubris whereby the living, breathing, animate dancer implicitly expresses a superiority to art that does not move but hangs in stasis while, nonetheless, that “static” art maintains its monetary value and cultural capital. Museums producing dance should take on the responsibility to produce dance visually with the same care they bestow upon visual art. The playing field might thereby be somewhat leveled.

Even though the Musée de la danse in Rennes is not a conventional museum — it has no gallery space — but a place for dancer training and choreographic experimentation it is related to the museum inasmuch as it is also a site for learning and invention. This speaks to a concept of the museum as a space of learning and invention. If Charmatz has chosen to place the word museum next to the word dance it is perhaps because the idea of the self-educating dancer is one that encompasses the dancer’s appropriation of dance history. That history in the twentieth century is one that is deeply engaged with visual art. Thus, for several possible reasons the museum for Charmatz is the appropriate figure of, or term for, such a project. As Yvonne Rainer remarked at the discussion a museum is a conservative institution. However, when the dancer appropriates his or her own history, reserving the right to express, formalize, and articulate it in/as a performance then I believe one may refer to a museum as a performative idea.

All in all, there is – and has been for some time — a tendency in contemporary French dance to put more power in the hands – and bodies – of dancers by wresting control of the pedagogical and historiographic project of institutionalized dance training. A sense of the contemporary dancer as autodidact emerges from recent debates in the French world of contemporary dance. Charmatz’s idea of the museum within the body and the body as a performative mini-museum derives to some degree from this autodidactic project, one that he has described and theorized in the context of an earlier initiative – Bocal (Jar) – in his book Je suis une école. Expérimentation, Art, Pédagogie [I am a school: Experimentation, Art, Pedagogy] (Paris: Les Prairies Ordinaires, 2009). French institutional power over the training of dancers is at issue in the very idea of the dance museum.

The transformative potential of the museum for dance in Charmatz’s view, as I understand it, resides paradoxically in its very educational and specifically autodidactic potential – hence the audience is also meant to learn — although that potential has been transferred from educational institutions such as conservatories or museums to the dancer him or herself.