School-ridden bodies

Notes on Boris Charmatz’ book "Je suis une école"

Corpus 17 Dec 2009English

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“‘Being school’, that’s different [from ‘making school’]. (…) We’re taking a walk through the vestiges of pedagogy, through the cultural strata left by our training, vestiges inseparable from the discovery of certain sexual propensities, political or domestic events, and satisfaction in friendly relations, which do not cease to fashion student groups. ‘Being a school’ is a project of self-analysis, an articulation of oneself in order to make the vital artistic trajectory touch the world of education, which is so rich.” [1]

Between July 2003 and July 2004, the French choreographer Boris Charmatz conducted the project Bocal, in which the sixteen participants sought to invent the modalities of their own education. The goal was not to develop a model for an ideal dance school, but a temporary and radically process-based approach. The project took place outside of the existing school context and negotiated the relationship between education and the arts field while investigating issues of pedagogy.

Departing from the dictum “Je suis une école” (“I am a school”), Charmatz looks back on Bocal in writing, so that a larger public has access to the research. This doesn’t make “Je suis une école” directly an accessible book: its documentary approach stays close to the chronology and the materials of the project, through which Bocal’s unruly, intuitive and somewhat chaotic modus operandi is foregrounded. Dancers will find in this book a treasure of exercises and documentation. But for reflections on “expérimentation, art, pédagogie” in a wider sense that connect the hundreds of fragments, the reader has to do some of the work himself.

“Our school [Bocal] is a school of context, the school of an art which knows that context is not foreign to the gesture, but inside of it. The social facts manufacture the savor of the produced works, the movement of the bodies is infested with economy and history, with the places where they locate themselves.” This reminds one of an older statement of Charmatz: “The scenographic and dramaturgical context is not elaborated alongside dance. In this sense it is not what one would normally call a ‘context’. So the light and the music do not ‘color’ a dance that remains standing in its own right. The ‘context’ is not around, it is not an addition, even less surroundings for the movement. It changes its meaning, it is inside it.” [2]

For Charmatz, dramaturgy is intertwined with the body, meaning that it is a matter of embodiment and embeddedness. That focus on an exploration of the material itself (and only via that way of the arguments, frames, canons, institutions, etc. that grant it intelligibility) was in Bocal also pointed towards the physical dramaturgy of educational situations, transmission of knowledge and learning processes. In what sense is the claim “I am a school” not only an artistic statement, but also an effective motor for self-education and for reflection on pedagogy at large and art education in specific?



Searching for the school in oneself is an exercise that balances on the border of archeology and phantasm in its quest for a beginning, for a first lesson. In an interview, Charmatz remarks that the first dance class, and also what is generally called “technique”, is preceded by many other techniques: “Dance schools always consider technique as something which you can acquire. Technique belongs to a teacher who teaches it to someone else. You receive technique from outside and when you are a good student you will learn it. But isn’t technique something which is already there but that you don’t use? Dance schools speak about ‘the technique’, but there are many techniques, just as you already possess a lot of physical techniques as well, like holding a pen to write for instance. Or sitting on a chair for hours, which requires that you develop strategies to enable that. The introduction of benches in the pedagogical system in the 14th century had a strong impact, as Jean-François Pirson explains in his book Le Corps et la chaise. It created a gap between the standing teacher and the seated pupils. Not mathematics is the first discipline, but how to sit on a bench for hours in silence and concentration. Even before the first class is taught, you learn how to sit in the right position and behave yourself, when to listen and when to speak – these are all physical techniques.” [3]

In her ethnographical study of bodies in school, for which she observed the physical behavior, gestures and attitude of pupils and teachers in secondary school, Antje Langer is in search of the first lesson, too – “It smells like school in here.” What immediately bothers her researchers in the class room is the uncomfortable school furniture and the long periods of sitting still. That “first discipline” is interpreted by Langer according to a conceptual distinction between the learning (lernend) and the eager-to-learn (gelehrig) body. While the first one is in a narrow sense devoted to specialized subjects, the second one concerns learning processes and socialization in a wider sense. In the case of pupils the problem is that both bodies are expected to coincide, so that socialization is limited to discipline in function of specific subject matters. Yet, does sitting still in concentration suffice as access to the world? [4]

Via self-analysis Charmatz and co. sought in Bocal to foreground precisely the “eager-to-learn body” in its full range, including both its traumatizing and emancipatory aspects. Take for instance the very first exercise done by the group: “Vider le sac de l’école.” (“Emptying the bag of the school.”) One person stands in the middle with closed eyes and lets his thoughts around the word “school” run freely. The others touch the person to support or comment this speech, but only in a physical way. In other actions the focus was put on the dance field itself, Bocal’s immediate context. When Bocal was invited to a festival, the participants for example analyzed its posters and brochures in order to discuss whether the propagated image of dance and the body indeed coincided with the actual performances and workshops they referred to. Or take the “minimal technique” devised in collaboration with movement specialist Hubert Godard: “The minimal technique of all modern courses could consist in observing the variations produced by everyone for effecting ‘common’ movements, such as walking, breathing, or looking at another.” [5]

What Bocal seems to put between brackets in all this, is the “learning body” that is unilaterally focused on transmission – on specific dance techniques for instance. But what about beginners or first year students who still need a framework to develop that “learning body” (instead of turning it immediately into an object of investigation)? Though Bocal called itself a school, it was in the first place an artistic research project about the school and pedagogy – but after all learning was still an objective. The participants already had a diploma, some in dance, others in visual arts, history, literature or medicine. Their dance background was diverse and in a few cases nearly inexistent, but they all already had an artistic practice of their own. “Je suis une école” betrays more than once the confusion among Bocal’s participants whether they are artists or “still” students, which makes clear that in both cases something else is at stake.

In relation to dance education a few questions arise which could be easily put aside by Bocal. Is it really so that (dance) technique already resides in everyone of us? That we all learned to sit still is one thing, but is there for instance also a ballet body lingering in everyone of us who has never been exposed to a specific training to that end? And between a technical training and socialization, there is probably a third level to be addressed: dancers and choreographers in school also have to learn to deal with freedom as artists. As said, Bocal did not intend to devise an applicable model for a dance school, but it doesn’t make these questions less pregnant. [6]



At its outset in the summer of 2003, Bocal immersed itself during one month in the ImPulsTanz festival in Vienna, which apart from performances also offers a large amount of workshops. On the basis of the classes they took, the ‘Bocalists’ developed many exercises, in which analysis and simulation of the movements and speech of the teachers were central. An example is the round table in which all the participants adopted the role of an artist/teacher and out of that position formulated an answer to the questions: “How would you educate a young artist today? Which place does speech have in your training? Has education made you move differently?" [7] According to the same principles, eventually also entire classes were being “reconstructed”.

Charmatz explains: “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 sense something of his universe? At the round table the teachers were not present, we had worked rather little with them, sometimes not at all. Yet this absence or removal of contact didn’t keep us from working with the resources we could find in ourselves to explore their ideas. The round table revolved around the urgency to digest classes, it was a performance set up to make us move and think, to twist our brains.”

“Suppose that you took one single class of African dance with Elsa Wolliaston, could you imagine what she would answer to the question of how to educate a young artist today? You could say that you don’t know. But if you start from the one simple exercise you know, there is a lot to be discovered: one class contains a whole world of aesthetics, philosophical statements; you are pondering the question what you want to do or not with all this. One class is a starting point for reconstructing a universe, which is inevitably a phantasmal work in progress, but it prompts you to think, guess and smell what lingers in that one gesture. What is the philosophy or ideology behind it? What does the movement say? How is the movement taught? How is the relationship between men and women organized? You have to make it your own. 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.” [8]

In “Je suis une école” Charmatz regularly points out that Bocal was not interested in transmission, but in “pedagogy as phantasm”, in which self-archeology and prediction meet. Yet, it seems that Charmatz foremost rejects the object of transmission, with which he alludes to a canonical understanding of the tradition that has a central place in academic dance education. Bocal was to be a school for everybody and thus it had to be open for a heterogeneous collection of bodily histories – a political ideal that inevitably clashes with prefixing any technique. And for those who want to learn specific techniques, there are already enough specialists that give workshops at festivals etc. Out of a polemical interest, Bocal wanted to do something different in the first place: “We are not here to use our knowledge (savoirs) like tools, we are here so that the factory of our tools can become our knowledge (savoir)!!!” [9]

In the simulation of the African dance class, phantasm and transmission still seem to meet at one point. When a prefixed object of transmission is put aside, what nevertheless remains are the gestures, attitudes and ways of speaking of that transmission, not unlike an “art of teaching” that is being appropriated by the students in order to develop their own practice, closely linked with their own interests and capacities. That way of working is not so far from investigating one’s own bodily history (“I am a school”) as a point of departure for potential techniques and forms of knowledge. By contrast, Bocal’s quest for a democratic “minimal technique” is a problematic implementation of that thought – through the concrete actualization of a preconceived ideal, Charmatz is overtaken by the phantasm.

In Bocal’s library we find Thierry de Duve’s recently republished Faire école (making school), a book that revolves around the whole idea of simulation as an artistic pedagogical practice. As opposed to Charmatz, De Duve does connect simulation explicitly with tradition via transmission. Art cannot be taught, but it can be transmitted, just like practical and theoretical knowledge can be transmitted. De Duve knows that today both the form and the object of transmission are not self-evident anymore – in contrast with the medieval studio practice or the classicist model of the art academy. Still, in order to deconstruct or even eradicate the past, one already has to be familiar with a tradition and maintain or embody it. At that point De Duve sees an impasse in visual arts education: since a whole generation of artists/teachers has disposed with the idea of métier, they cannot any longer transmit that aspect of craftsmanship to their students. Do the latter thus have to limit themselves to making ready-mades? Simulation as a pedagogical practice (like: “Make a Mondriaan that he himself did not paint”) for De Duve is not a preparation for the arts market, but a way of revalidating technique(s), not for that technique as such, but to enable transmission again. Note that De Duve considers that less of a problem in the education of music and performing arts, because a disciplined transmission of techniques is still their point of departure. [10]

Since Marcel Duchamp, art can be made with anything and one is not a priori an artist through mastering a métier, but through facing the other’s judgment afterwards. To become “artist in general”, one has to learn in school to be self-critical, to resist crap and simple solutions. For De Duve simulation is connected to forming one’s own taste and faculty of judgment, with tradition as a touchstone. Learning to deal with freedom means education in aesthetical responsibility: “The artist thus has but one responsibility, that of standing up in public for one’s obscure object of desire, without compromise with reality nor with pleasure, which is to say, without fearing another’s judgment.” [11]

Though Charmatz doesn’t exactly solve the issues of technique and transmission, his polemical stance is now clearer: not only did he want, with Bocal, to counterbalance the excess of academism in (French) dance education, he expects that also today’s dance makers are educated as “artists in general”. So they also have to whet their faculty of judgment and learn to speak about their own work. Simulation is an exercise to move through the world and language of others in order to learn to deal with that otherness in oneself, that “obscure object of desire.”


Next to historicizing studio practice, De Duve pleads for “aestheticizing” theory training, by which he means that it should be related to aesthetical judgment. The discussion of works is therefore central, with the teachers challenging the artists-in-education, so that they have to elucidate and assume their decisions – rather than justifying them. What was the place of speech and discourse in Bocal? And what remains of that third element (the master, the tradition, the work), crucial for learning processes, in the case of self-education departing from the claim “I am a school”? Though context – according to Charmatz – may very well always already be internalized, isn’t it precisely the fact that one can also literally situate what is other outside of oneself, that one learns to relate to it?

Bocal embraced modernity by questioning everything as a matter of principle, starting with the master and his position of power. The ‘Bocalists’ disposed with the master and opted for self-education, they were teachers for one another and endlessly discussed as equals each step to be taken in their education before actually taking it or not. It didn’t work, because the confusion of art and pedagogy happened to be an obstacle once again. Charmatz initiated the project as an artist so that he could take decisions fully autonomously, but at the same time he wanted, as a student, to place himself on the same level as the other participants. Halfway through the process he deplores: “Isn’t it fantastic, a school in which the program is made by the students themselves, where there are no teachers, where the courses are made by those who support them? In reality it is also a small inferno.” [12] Upon which Bocal took a new start, with Charmatz holding the strings somewhat tighter.

Moreover it seems that Charmatz wrote “Je suis une école” in order to highlight Bocal's artistic character and in a sense re-appropriate it. Whether Bocal has failed within a pedagogical perspective, is hard to tell (Charmatz himself suspends the answer), but if the project’s aim was a polemical one, then didn’t it make itself harmless in advance by mainly being art instead of school in moments when it really mattered? Whether “Je suis une école” will still administer a shock to French dance education, is to be awaited.

Charmatz’ reflections on Bocal’s crisis concern mostly art, less pedagogy: he writes that freedom and making radical art entail violence, and that it is a matter of giving a place to that violence – which he also compares to the discipline and strict time schedule in schools. Yet, does that institutional framework (minimal though it might be) not also have a disburdening role? Self-organization in education has yet another problematic side today: via credit systems students become more and more clients or consumers of their own training, in line with an overwrought voluntarist conception of man – which in the end is nothing else than the neoliberal variation of “I am a school”. Strangely enough such questions are hardly discussed when it concerns guest teachers such as Steve Paxton, Vera Mantero, Laurence Louppe or Hubert Godard: both their authority and their relating to it were self-evident for the Bocalists.

Back to the third element. Next to a recalcitrant view upon technique and forms of education, language was a central concern in Bocal. Conquering language is not self-evident for many dancers, as Charmatz points out elsewhere: “Learning the difficult exercising of one’s freedom is excluded from the training of the professional dancer. It also concerns the liberty of speaking, all too absent from the studio. In contrast with actors, dancers have learned to remain silent, to be disciplined.” [13] For the dancer, the emancipation of the “eager-to-learn” body starts with speaking. Dance may very well be a physical practice, also language is omnipresent in the studio, though it requires to be acknowledged and valued, also in dance education.

In Bocal language played an important role, not only in the many discussions, but also integrated in almost all the described exercises, both in spoken and written form. With some practice, warm-up and training can be combined with reading a book, after a while even in unexpectedly complex ways. The dancers can observe and develop their own bodily positions and relate at the same time to discourse. The combination of warm-up and books is also interesting in that it clarifies the specific structure of many exercises. Those books do not only introduce discourse and thus another world into the studio, they also play the role of an object that demands attention – as a thing the book thus symbolizes the otherness to which the student has to relate, it continuously reminds one of the third element as a motor for the learning process. Attention for the thing itself, for the very meaning of the material even before it is being appropriated into one’s own world by way of arguments, that is what the book as a foreign object demands.

Near the end of “Je suis une école” follows a small user’s guide with instructions to read the book once again, but much slower, by way of an exercise that literally turns the book into a “ground”: “The book is our ground”. Place the book on the floor, stand on top of it with bare feet, go to page 187 and start to read, and all this without ever touching the floor, not even for turning the pages!



[1] Boris Charmatz, “Je suis une école”: Expérimentation, art, pédagogie, Paris: Les Prairies ordinaires, 2009, p. 72.
[2] Boris Charmatz and Isabelle Launay, Entretenir: A propos d’une danse contemporaine, Paris, 2002, p. 158.
[3] Interview in Paris in March 2005. Fragments were published in ‘Performing A School. The Bocal Project. Boris Charmatz in dialogue with Jeroen Peeters’, Contact Quarterly, vol 32 no 1, winter/spring 2007, pp. 11-14, 18; and ‘Performing the school. Boris Charmatz in dialogue with Jeroen Peeters on Bocal’, in Sabine Gehm, Pirkko Husemann, Katharina von Wilcke, Knowledge in Motion. Perspectives of Artistic and Scientific Research in Dance, Bielefeld, 2007, pp. 259-266.
[4] Cf. Antje Langer, Disziplinieren und entspannen. Körper in der Schule – eine diskursanalytische Ethnographie, Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2008, pp. 126-36.
[5] Charmatz, “Je suis une école”, p. 126.
[6] In 2007-08 Charmatz was co-director of the BA-programme “Contemporary dance, context, choreography” at the HZ Tanz in Berlin, where several of Bocal’s ideas have found a place, so that the question of instutionalization and the coaching of first year students eventually turned up again. According to a recent newsletter of the school, Charmatz will evaluate this pilot programme together with the students in January 2010.
[7] Charmatz, “Je suis une école”, pp. 83-84.
[8] Interview in Paris in March 2005.
[9] Charmatz, “Je suis une école”, p. 138.
[10] Cf. Thierry De Duve, Faire école (ou la refaire?), Nouvelle édition revue et augmentée, Genève/Dijon: Collection Mamco/Les presses du réel, 2009, pp. 39, 51, 68, 92, 104-105.
[11] Cf. Ibid. pp. 106-110, 125, 218-219.
[12] Charmatz, “Je suis une école”, p. 166.
[13] Charmatz and Launay, Entretenir, p. 58.