Performing A School. The Bocal Project

Boris Charmatz in dialogue with Jeroen Peeters

Contact Quarterly 1 Jan 2007English

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Contextual note
This text was published in Contact Quarterly, vol 32 no 1, winter/spring 2007, pp. 11-14, 18.

Between July 2003 and July 2004, the French choreographer Boris Charmatz and Association Edna conducted the Bocal project in the frame of a three-year residency at Centre National de la Danse. A nomadic and temporary school, Bocal sought to develop the idea of a contemporary dance school by inventing the modalities of one’s own education. Charmatz and fifteen participants investigated issues of pedagogy within an artistic project outside the existing institutional school context. Negotiating the relationship between education and the arts field, Charmatz aimed to inscribe Bocal in a context provided by fourteen residencies in different European cities. Meeting with Boris Charmatz in March 2005, the question was: What stays? Which elements of Bocal still resonate in his artistic practice?


“I am a school.” If you ask me when Bocal started, I can only say that Bocal was already there at the official launch and it’s still going on, eight months after its closure. Bocal didn’t have a real starting point, since the idea of a school was already inside us. But Bocal was a new school that we didn’t know yet, so there was a lot to be discovered. Claiming that “Bocal is a school” or “Bocal is a performing group for one year” elicits completely different preconceptions and expectations.

School is part of your phantasmal world, your thoughts and inner landscape. Rather than starting and finishing a school, you incorporate it—the way it functions, how to learn, and so on. I really think I am a school. Saying that also means that you are teaching yourself all the time. You are learning. You observe other people’s behaviors. You transmit something when you are talking or when you touch someone. You share information that will be interpreted by others. All this happens in a single gesture. The idea “I am a school” says that education can happen everywhere and anytime you have the consciousness that a school is inside you.

Steve Paxton? Never heard of him! After performances as a dancer or choreographer, I often met students of theatre, architecture, or visual arts, but seldom people from dance schools. When I did meet students from the Paris Conservatory and wanted to discuss the works of artists who were important to me, they wouldn’t know their names, they hadn’t seen the performances. So we didn’t share the same culture at all.

Is it important to know Jérôme Bel or Steve Paxton to be a choreographer today? When you are in college for scientific research, you can’t expect that it will come all by itself, no, you have to study and inform yourself. If you are in a dance academy and don’t get a strong cultural education in an active way—not only through reading books but also through relating yourself, your body, and your thinking to the history of dance, the current arts field, and so on—then there is really a problem.

It’s not about wearing tights. The European dance scene has grown highly diverse over the past ten years, which brought up the question: What kind of education do we need to prepare for professional work within the field? I was part of several groups that discussed this issue. We realized that in spite of the artistic developments elsewhere, the contemporary dance departments of the conservatories were becoming even more academic than ballet. To clarify this with a single example: if you wanted to do an audition for the contemporary department in Angers, you had to be dressed in tights! Imagine you are a visual artist with an interest in performance or in the field of body practices and say to yourself, “Okay, I am a boy, I’ll take the risk; I’ll try a dance school.” Then you hear that you have to do an audition in tights, and you are suddenly reluctant to go.

So, what is dance nowadays? What is a dancer? Not claiming to educate a dancer to become a great choreographer but exploring the doubts; turning education into a problem or a question should be a motive for pursuing it. Then you can look for a response to what is happening on stage, then you can work in a specific way. In 2002, outside of the training at at the Centre Chorégraphique de Montpellier Languedoc Roussillon and the Toulouse Centre de Développement Chorégraphique, no school in France was offering this possibility. Everyone had to make do with dispersed workshops. The argument both to create room for outsiders and to tailor education to personal needs were at the inception of Bocal.

A phantasmal Cunningham. Les signataires du vingt août [The signers of August 20] was a group of forty dancers and researchers who discussed the conditions of practice today. Another group, Ecole, includes kinesiologist Hubert Godard; dance historian Isabelle Launay; dance pedagogues Anne-Karine Lescop and Catherine Hassler; and choreographers Mathilde Monnier, Loïc Touzé, and myself. One of our thought experiments was “What would an ideal school look like?” Mathilde proposed to select a series of references in contemporary dance and art—for example, Merce Cunningham or Trisha Brown. We asked Mathilde why it was so important for her to work around Cunningham. As a student, I would have found it more interesting to hear Mathilde, an active artist with an interest in pedagogy, explain what she loves or takes from Cunningham’s research than to study “correct” Cunningham technique with a “Cunnningham” teacher. Preparing Bocal, it was clear that I wanted to involve artists themselves and not their preferred teachers. Developing a school program, a practice, technique, and training was the very work of and within Bocal: What does it mean to train a young artist today?

Performing the school, that is the question. Usually when I am invited to teach in dance schools, I can’t choose the students, I can’t choose the space, or the duration of the course. In short, I can’t choose the frame of teaching, apart from a little bit of negotiation. When I make a performance, I start with the question, What is a performance? and then choose everything. Everything can be a choice and a question. Why not do this for a school as well? For Bocal, I decided to choose all the aspects: duration, time, space, technique, training, who participates, the relationship between inside and outside, what and how we would discuss—everything could be a question. Bocal was a way to make a school as you make a performance, where you completely commit yourself.

Technique is a complex issue nowadays. Take Rachid Ouramdane: How does he train? He believes that new media and technology allow him to make his dance evolve; working with video and computer is in a way how he trains. Ten years ago, dancers would meet in La Ménagerie (in Paris) to train together; today some are doing yoga, some aren’t doing anything, others are reading. Training is not as clear as it once was. Everyone invents a training that suits his artistic practice, and that’s what we did in Bocal. Perhaps that’s art: whatever topic you take, you reconstruct it, you build around it, you reconsider yourself in connection with it. Starting from the question, What would be a personal training that serves our goals and interests? we came to invent our training instead of “taking” training. In Bocal, we considered technique as something that is already inside you but needs to be explored.

Immersed in the smell of dance. One of the starting points of Bocal was the decision not to invite “teachers.” Instead, we would extract our lessons from watching performances and from books, video, audio archives, and other documentation. So the act of looking at performances became part of our school. This attention to performances has been part of my story with dance all the way. For me, the most important incentive to start dancing was seeing a performance by Jean-Claude Galotta when I was still very young, in which people of about 45 years old were eating sandwiches in a train station in Paris and performing among the people waiting for the trains.

The idea of bringing the cultural field inside Bocal prompted us to go to the ImPulsTanz festival in Vienna for a few weeks in July 2003 for our first residency. We found ourselves in the midst of an array of workshops with 90 different teachers, and each night we would see one or two performances. Some of the Bocalists had seen very few performances in their lives or would take their very first dance class: Vienna promised total immersion, being surrounded by a smell of dance, although it’s a limited smell. How not to get bored with seeing one performance a day, or get sick of taking classes among 3,000 dance students without a single theoretical class? That’s a fact in Vienna.

The way speech is used in physical practices was one of our focal points. There is talking and discourse everywhere: instructions in a yoga class, parables in the African dance class, but words are also in the dressing rooms, in the corridors, and so on. The way a teacher uses language in their teaching makes him or her also move in a certain way. We were observing teachers to find out how their use of speech informed their own minds and bodies. How does the talking transform the movement and the gesture? How is it possible that a teacher seated on a chair is able to make thirty people shake in one second? So we saw performances, took and observed workshops, observed teaching and the aesthetics of pedagogy as if it were performance: that was all part of our education.

“How to educate a young artist today?” was the theme of a roundtable we did in Vienna after a few weeks there. The result was striking: it was no less than a performance organized by and for ourselves. Each of us had to speak in the name of a teacher or an artist from the festival, like Svi Gotheiner, Elsa Wolliaston, or Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. There was a risk of satire in it, but our aim was not to fool about with faking icons or trying to catch their behaviors. We were looking for a way to connect ourselves to the work of others. In dance, we privilege a direct relationship with the artist for a learning process, but then how can you explore the world of the late choreographer Dominique Bagouet? Do you just leave him aside out of a lack of contact, or do you try to guess, to smell something of his universe?

Suppose that you took one class of African dance with Elsa Wolliaston, could you imagine what she would answer to the question, How to educate a young artist today? If you approach the class of Wolliaston as a tourist with an exotic interest, then you stay where you are, and Wolliaston stays where she is. But if you try to find out what she would answer to the question—by trying to teach African dance yourself—in the end you are really taking it in and thinking about it, you are moving in the foreign world of Elsa Wolliaston. It’s not her actual world and it’s not “real” African dance, but it’s a very good point of departure for a learning process.

Predicting a performance. We saw 31 performances in one month and we visited museums and exhibitions in Vienna. In order to survive this daily looking practice, I proposed to organize a “prediction.” A prediction means you will use movement and speech to predict what a performance that you will see the next day will be like. Is it possible to predict what will happen? There are lots of things that you know in advance: the title, the rumors, the program text, some pictures perhaps; someone might have shared an opinion with you; you might have seen the company before. In fact, you already know a lot, and formulating your preconceptions makes you become a highly active viewer. You are obliged to formulate what you like and don’t like, what you understand, what you know about the theatre and the kind of audience.… Strangely enough, what you describe frequently comes about because you often predict stereotypes that can be easily matched. Also, because you see what you want to see, predictions probably tell you more about the way you are structured than about the way a performance is. In essence, you are working on yourself—your opinions and preconceptions—not only predicting an artist’s work.

Books in the studio. Since we decided not to invite teachers for Bocal, an alternative was to work on books and documents, for which we compiled a library that traveled with us to all the residencies. The traveling library contained a selection of both new books and works contributed by Bocalists to share and read together. Just reading the book titles gave you an idea of the domain we were aiming to explore: the field of dance, arts, pedagogy, aesthetics, and sociology. The books were used a lot during Bocal. Building a culture around them was important for us.

Reading was a nice and simple way to enter research. We tried to bring books into the studio and invent exercises with them, so training got mixed with the act of reading. This came from the banal observation that you are working all day long in the studio as a dancer and when you come home, you’re too tired to read. As if reading and dancing would not go together. Why not reverse this situation and bring reading into the daily practice?

Is it interesting to do warm-up and reading exercises? One exercise we did was to take out all the furniture of reading and spend time reading on the studio floor. After a while you start to discover strategies to hold your book, which are very interesting little choreographies. The positioning of the hand, the body postures. How many different postures do you use? It’s a behavioral study.

Then we invented warm-up exercises while reading. While just standing, you imagine, for example, that your book has the possibility to move. So you adjust your look and your neck in the right way to read the text. Then you try to move the book a little bit, and after some time, you find out that you don’t lose the text. You can move and at the same time continue reading. Out of this principle, we developed duets: one is reading, the other is slowly moving the book. In the end, you invent trajectories to bring the reader to the ground and up again, continuously moving. It allows you to study how your look is connected to your spine, to what extent you can be precise with it, what kind of landscape it creates, which are possibilities and impossibilities.

Another exercise was to consider the book to be your ground. Put the book on the floor and get on top of it, touching only the book, and then read it. After looking for the right balance and precision in the movements, you discover hundreds of possible postures to do this exercise, which combines physicality, balance, concentration, consciousness.… It’s nothing less than a modern dance exercise.

With this basis, you can develop increasingly complex exercises or do any dance exercise, add a book to it and see what’s possible. The notion of multitasking or being connected to several things at the same time is customary in daily life and human activity, and also close to improvisation: there is the space, and you have your own ways to use it, but you need to have an awareness of what is going on around you. Reading while moving is an exercise that equals the complexity of what is happening on stage nowadays.


This is an edited version of the interview, “Performing the School,” which is available in its entirety on Association Edna’s website:

Bocalists: Félicia Atkinson, François Chaignaud, Nicolas Couturier, Maeva Cunci, Eve Girardot, Gaspard Guilbert, Joris Lacoste, Elise Ladoué, Clément Layes, Barbara Matijevic, David Miguel, Bouchra Ouizgen, Frédéric Schranckenmuller, Natalia Tencer, Nabil Yahia-Aïssa.