Performing the School

Boris Charmatz in dialogue with Jeroen Peeters on Bocal

Knowledge in motion 2007English
Sabine Gehm, Pirkko Husemann, Katharina von Wilcke, Knowledge in Motion. Perspectives of Artistic and Scientific Research in Dance, Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2007, pp. 259-266

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Between July 2003 and July 2004, the French choreographer Boris Charmatz and association edna conducted the project Bocal 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 their own education. Charmatz and fifteen participants with different backgrounds investigated issues of pedagogy within an artistic project outside the existing institutional school context.(1) 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.(2) The single idea to undertake a school project entailed questions about the transmission of knowledge, the performance of education, critical positioning and reflection upon context. Bocal did not result in a school model, but became rather a container brimming with ideas, concepts, methods and exercises, all in between performance and education, art and pedagogy, practice and theory. Meeting with Boris Charmatz in March 2005 for a conversation, 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.

To connect Bocal with the idea of a school brought up all kinds of memories and nightmares that have to do with obtaining your diploma or not, experiences with teachers, and so on. And of course you already have ideas of knowledge, ignorance and learning. You tend to think of school as a period in your life, which actually encompasses much more than just school: you think of mathematics, philosophy and sports, but also of fights with others, sitting on a chair for hours, your first kisses, how you perceived yourself as a boy or a girl. It’s also a period of your identity formation and sexual education. School is part of your phantasmal world, your thoughts and inner landscape. Rather than starting and finishing a school, you incorporate it throughout your life – the way it functions, how to learn, and so on. I really think I am a school.

Saying “I am a school” also means that you are teaching yourself all the time. Your brain is active, you are correcting yourself, you are learning. You observe other people’s behaviours. 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 doesn’t have to happen in the classroom, but can happen everywhere and anytime you have the consciousness that a school is inside you. John Cage and others said that you already know a lot but don’t express it, because you are told that you are not educated yet. It is a good practice of inner observation to think that you are a school and explore the potential of what is already there inside you.


Immersed in the smell of dance. One of the starting points of Bocal was the decision not to invite “real” 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. I was trained in several techniques in the Paris Opera School and elsewhere – but that’s only part of the thing. Watching performances or Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, reading poetry or discovering the world of choreographer Dominique Bagouet: all these experiences were as important for my education as ballet classes.(3)

The idea to bring the cultural field inside Bocal prompted us to go to the ImPulsTanz festival in Vienna for one month in July 2003 for our first residency. We found ourselves amidst 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 were taking their very first dance class: Vienna promised total immersion, being surrounded by a smell of dance, although it’s a limited smell. You might not find your ideal teacher there. Or you might have to divide your time, so you end up making a cocktail of techniques, while it might be better to pursue one track or invent your own practice. How do you not get bored with seeing one performance a day, or get sick of taking classes among 3000 dance students without a single theoretical class? That’s a fact in Vienna.

Still, dance is a physical practice, but 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 and metaphors in Elsa Wolliaston’s African dance class, but words are also in the dressing rooms, in the corridors and so on. The way teachers use language in their teaching makes them also move in a certain way. Teaching through oral explanation while doing, you may go deeper into a movement, understand it better, sometimes even perform it better. The way teachers talk or don’t talk to a group, the way they teach themselves through explanation and demonstration: 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 should a young artist be educated today?” was the theme of a roundtable we did in Vienna after a few weeks there. The result was striking: it wasn’t just an exercise or class, but no less than a performance organised by and for ourselves. Each of us had to speak in the name of a teacher or an artist from the festival, like Zvi Gotheiner, Elsa Wolliaston or Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. There was a risk of irony in it, but our aim was not to fool around with faking icons or trying to catch their attitudes. Some of the teachers were not even known at all. 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 roundtable 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 roundtable 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 organised? 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.


Predicting a performance. We saw 31 performances in one month and we visited museums and exhibitions in Vienna. In order to survive this daily practice of looking, I proposed to organise a “prediction”. A prediction means you use movement and speech to predict what the performance that you will see the next day will be like. But before we went into the actual descriptions of performances we hadn’t seen yet, we first had to discuss the nature and interest of the exercise, were even guessing and analysing what the exercise would be like. Is it possible to predict what will happen? What about improvisations and premieres? When you predict what will happen, don’t you destroy the performance in advance? Doesn’t the ideal spectator enter a performance with an open mind and a neutral point of view? How do you deal with your expectations?

There are lots of things that you know in advance: the title, the rumours, 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, etc. 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 travelled with us to all the residencies. The travelling 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.

We had recurrent discussions on Laban and dance history, read poetry by Christophe Tarkos and Gherasim Luca, worked with statements on education by artists like Robert Filliou and John Cage, etc. Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster (4) spurred our reflection on education: it’s a parable around the idea that anybody can teach you writing, even if that person cannot write himself. But if you know how to compare things and to encourage correct results, then you are able to teach. This means that a school can also happen in a family context or elsewhere: the idea of a school outside the school was a shared interest of research in Bocal.

Reading was a nice and simple way to enter research. In dance schools, the library is not always actively consulted; books are certainly not used in as lively a way as we did. 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 do not go together. Why not reverse this situation and bring reading into the daily practice?


The book is your ground. We invented warm-up exercises while reading. For one exercise we took out all the furniture of reading and spent time reading on the studio floor, without cushions or anything. 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. Can you sustain a certain position or not? How many different postures do you use? It’s a behavioural study.

For another exercise you just stand and imagine that your book is able to move. So, not unlike Alexander technique, you adjust your gaze 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 reads, the other slowly moves 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 gaze 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.

One 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 without touching the floor. Obviously it’s easier to start with a large book, but after stretching and 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, etc. It’s nothing less than a modern dance exercise. And at the same time you are reading: even if you read only ten or twenty pages and might not remember everything, it’s at least something. After the warm-up, you are ready to enter the workshop and spit out the experience, you are physically warm and have reading baggage. To share the knowledge of our reading warm-up and reading sessions, we moved as duos, with one asking the other questions about the reading.

With this basis, you can develop increasingly complex exercises or do any dance exercise, add a book to it and see what’s possible. How much space is there to improvise when you are holding or reading a book? How do bodies enter into contact while thinking about something else? In Bocal we aimed to make the training space more complex and not only focussed on a single activity, simply because in daily life and human activity it is customary to be connected to several things at the same time. Reading while moving was a way to achieve this, with sixteen different teachers, different books, movements, ways of approaching each other… all in one single class. And yet you are the only one responsible for what you are doing, to observe your activities, find the right balance, see how much you can digest: you are your own teacher. The notion of multitasking is 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.



(1) Bocal’s participants were 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 and Nabil Yahia-Aïssa.

(2) Apart from Centre national de la danse (Paris/Pantin), which was visited six times throughout that year, it concerns the venues and coproducers ImPulsTanz (Vienna), Le Quartz (Brest), Bonlieu Scène Nationale (Annecy), Les Subsistances (Lyon), Espace Malraux (Chambéry), and Art radionica Lazareti, an abandoned hospital in Dubrovnik. Several residency places were visited more than once.

(3) For an extensive discussion of Charmatz’ dance education, see Boris Charmatz and Isabelle Launay, Entretenir. À propos d’une danse contemporaine, Paris: Centre national de la danse/Les presses du réel, 2002, p. 50-56, 70-72.

(4) Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991