Food for thought: Boris Charmatz’ manger

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

The culmination of the Fringe Festival featured manger, a “choreography of the mouth” by Boris Charmatz, who is a prominent name in the French modern dance world. manger (meaning “to eat” in French), was created in 2014, and was presented this past weekend at FringeArts. The piece began when its twelve interpreters took their first bites from the stacks of rice paper they were holding, and ended an hour later when they finished eating them all – scrounging up the last little pieces off the floor.

Before the eating started, the audience was ushered into the theater, mixing and chatting with the performers on the dance floor. With no clear cue, the performers shifted into a different psychological zone, taking bites of the paper and emitting distressing, gulping sounds as they chewed. They writhed and twisted themselves into acrobatic positions, never making eye contact with the audience – who continued to wander around observing them.

Various performers squished paper between their toes, licked their arms or feet, regurgitated the paper, or acted as if they were ill. At times, they climbed and rolled on one another. Vigorous phrases of movement emerged, including some break dancing moves. Their commitment was intense, and they never stopped chewing. The program notes suggested that they were “swallowing reality, slowly digesting the world.”

In addition to using their bodies, the performers generated sound material. They hummed and sung their way through musical selections from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Corelli’s La Folia to songs by The Kills and Sexy Sushi. They shouted text from Le bonhomme de merde by Christophe Tarkos. These vocal arrangements, by Dalila Khatir, rang out in the theater, creating a soundscape that was on equal par to the physical choreography.

Charmatz’ manger is a difficult work – akin to disturbing paintings throughout Western art history by Bosch, Goya, or Kollwitz. It’s a visual and aural artwork, alive and breathing, that unfolds over a stretch of time. Strange, then, when at the conclusion the performers lined up for a bow and the audience applauded. Why the sudden observance of theatrical convention?

Charmatz studied at the Paris Opera Ballet School as a teenager, then moved on to studies at the more cutting-edge Conservatoire de Lyon. He choreographed his first dance in 1993, at the age of 19, and soon gained notoriety as part of the European “non-dance” movement. FringeArts has presented a number of Charmatz’ works over the past years, along with those of his fellow French provocateur Jérôme Bel, affording Philadelphia audiences the valuable opportunity to encounter their questioning, intellectual approach to dance.

Charmatz has never had a company of his own, but has collaborated with other artists to produce works that are often controversial, and more like art installations than dance performances. He was appointed director of the National Choreographic Center in Rennes in 2009, and changed its name to Musée de la Danse. He runs the center like a think tank, working on a project-to-project basis with different groups of dancers, advancing the concept of dance as an exhibition of the expressive body.

In addition to its home base in Rennes, Charmatz’ Musée project has taken up residence in museums including the Tate Modern in London and MoMA in New York. Charmatz will co-curate the upcoming Philadelphia Museum of Dance along with Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Arts and Design. The free day-long public performance will take place at the Barnes Foundation on October 6th from 3 – 9 pm. Philadelphia Museum of Dance will conclude with a performance of Charmatz’ danse de nuit.

***photo credit Ursula Kaufmann

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