Blind Machinations and Grotesque Counter-Movements

Notes on Boris Charmatz’ Régi

Blind Machinations and Grotesque Counter-Movements 2006English
Jeroen Peeters, Blinde machinaties en groteske tegenbewegingen. Notities bij Régi van Boris Charmatz / Blind Machinations and grotesque countermovements. Notes on Boris Charmatz’ Régi, CC Maasmechelen, 2006, pp. 29-38. Translated from Dutch by Gregory Ball.

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Initially it appeared to be able to arrange itself like an anecdote. I tried to hold on to the point of it as long as possible: about how we got away with just a fright. It’s always like that, isn’t it? When something happens to you , you never know what it is. You grope in the dark. The fear is all around you like a wall, you can’t manage to look over it. It’s only from what people have said that you know what’s on the other side. It consists of inexperienced words: words that don’t know what they are talking about.

P.F. Thomése, Schaduwkind

1. Erasures

The following may be a suitable emblematic image with which to introduce the work of the French choreographer Boris Charmatz: in his group piece Con forts fleuve (1999) the dancers were dressed in long trousers and sweaters, and their heads were girt with trousers so that their bodies were invisible from head to toe. Other things were erased too: the performance was regularly interrupted by blackouts, the spoken passages were distorted, and at the end the whole stage was actually covered by a pile of blankets that fell one by one from above. While dance performances traditionally ‘show’ bodies, Charmatz here reversed the principle: he does not see dance as a pictorial medium. In his view, choreography today can no longer be a vehicle for the promotion of idealised bodies in all their glory. On the contrary, his unruly language of movement and dramaturgical strategies constantly put pressure on the prevailing cultural ideals of the visible body.

Since the image is deliberately covered up, the spectator only has indirect contact with it, which urges him to actively reconstruct the performance – a hyper-performance of the imagination. So as a spectator you yourself have to work, and for this reason the mental choreography of projection and suspense touches on the heart of Charmatz’ work: ‘While we try to understand what someone is experiencing, while we guess at and predict what is going to happen, we are actually working on ourselves, and constantly have our own potential and limitations in view. Perhaps we want a dancer to do things we ourselves are not able to, or perhaps the opposite. Perhaps our imagination or our memory is not up to making a full prediction of what will or may happen. In fact it is nothing other than ‘working on oneself and looking at others.’

There is another form of erasure that has marked Charmatz’ work since Con forts fleuve: the self-erasure of the choreographer. Charmatz has actually always been and remains distinct as an author, but since 1999 he has also regularly staged his own disappearance by deliberately working in a small-scale, fragmented manner in specific settings – and has thereby remained limited in his visibility. Until his creation of Régi (January 2006) he had done no more stage work since 1999, in the strictest sense of the term, but nor had he been inactive. His awareness of context and also his interest in working in several disciplines is made apparent by a brief summary of a number of projects: an excursion in the Alps (Ouvrée, artistes en alpages, 2000), an exhibition on the absent body (Status, 2001-2), a ‘pseudo-performance’, actually a video installation for a single spectator (héâtre-élévision, 2002), performances for ‘those who have not asked for them’ in offices, schools and other unusual locations (Confrontation, 2003), a book in dialogue with the dance academic Isabelle Launay (Entretenir, 2003), a nomadic education project (Bocal, 2003-4) and several performances as an improvisor (including Meg Stuart’s Auf den Tisch, 2004-6).

If there is any constant thread running through these many projects it is that Charmatz never does the same thing twice. In his case, the development of new forms does not ensue so much from an urge for renewal as such, but from a wish to find the limits of what can be expressed. He is driven by extremes, such as the improbable, the impossible and the totally closed.


2. Filters

But now we have Régi, a stage creation featuring not only the dancer Julia Cima and Charmatz himself but also the German theatre-maker Raimund Hoghe in the role of a performer. Hoghe’s motto, which he borrowed from Pasolini, is ‘Throwing the body into the struggle’. Since Meinwärts (1994), his small, hunched body has occupied a central position in his own performances. It is a body whose specific nature and emphatic sustained presence lays bare anatomic ideals, cultural prejudices and exclusion mechanisms. Hoghe stages rituals that recall what is suppressed, by recurrently throwing his body into the struggle. His body has for several years also aroused the interest of dance-makers, because it puts not only ideal bodies to the test, but also the language of a whole generation of choreographers who are looking for a contemporary means of expression in the disjointure of bodies.

Last year for example, the Cultural Centre at Maasmechelen showed good enough, a revival of a male duet by the Austrian choreographer Philipp Gehmacher, with in this version Raimund Hoghe as his opposite number. At the time, Gehmacher said this about the differences that mark Hoghe’s body: ‘It is a duet, and I am on stage with someone who is very different from myself. Very different from most people in fact. What would it be like with someone who is not a professionally trained dancer? With someone of another generation? His bent back makes it hard to find anyone more characteristic, more idiosyncratic and more ‘different’ than Raimund Hoghe. This is an interesting point, because in my language of movement I make a lot of use of torsion and distortion, whereas Raimund’s back is already distorted in everyday life. So what does he have to show on stage? And what do I have to do myself? The new version confronts me much more forcefully with myself and puts me at the mercy of the moment. So, after four years good enough is being brought back to life, but much more as a mental ‘score’ than as a choreographed performance.’

Hoghe sees his body on stage as a container that is then filled with various realities. Often with things that evade him too, of which he is not the author, as in Sacre – The Rite of Spring (2004), a duo with Lorenzo de Brabandere: ‘we do what we have to on stage, we are containers, we do not have to discuss things: everything is clear and that is what we do.’ Various backgrounds, bodies and means of expression can meet on stage, and what concerns Hoghe is communication between different worlds: ‘The exciting thing about collaborating with Philipp Gehmacher is that I enter his world with my body and we are able to communicate despite the differences. In my forthcoming work with Boris Charmatz it is precisely the same. We are different but can communicate, which is extremely important these days. We do not have to be the same; on the contrary, we fight for diversity and difference. I would not be interested in people who did similar work to me. It’s all about entering a different world. And therefore also about working with another body and through another body.’

In the programme book for Régi, Boris Charmatz wrote the following about Raimund Hoghe’s wish to work together: ‘Etre régi, to be directed: I want to choreograph Raimund Hoghe, but he devours every gesture. I have confidence that he is a sort of ‘medium’, a projection plane that filters everything that passes through him. I feed this medium with everything we would not have been able to do ourselves.’ And, ‘The special thing about this performer, like all performers, though in a more crucial or visible way, is certainly that he filters and eats a choreography which in the best case can only pass through him. But does choreography not always run up against the person who is performing it, and in this case in a most natural manner?


3. Machinations

Régi starts in total darkness, and then the light fades in very, very slowly, taking several minutes. You hear machine-like sounds before you can discern any shapes. And there is actually a machine on stage, a crane with two pulleys to which are attached long ropes that run criss-cross through the space, and in their turn are attached to the theatrical box: the walls, the grid and so on. The machine continues systematically rolling up the ropes, each of which then breaks loose from and focuses the attention on a part of the theatre space. It is as if the machine were unwrapping a present, but from the inside: the meditative choreography of the machine reveals the ‘machinery’ of the theatre. At the same time, the conditions that make theatrical images possible are made apparent by the lighting, which gradually takes the stage out of the shadows into the realm of the visible.

After some time the two ropes are completely rolled up and it turns out that a body is hanging at each of their ends, and shortly afterwards they too are surrendered to the machine. The inert bodies of Julia Cima and Boris Charmatz, in simple black clothes and shoes, are hoisted up and down in a mechanical choreography. The image is improbable but equally sticks in your mind, both serene and violent: a man and a woman deprived of all resistance. The machine symbolises strange powers that interfere in our bodies and lives, but over which we have no hold, and without their significance becoming clear: like dark machinations behind the scenes. The machine literally holds the reins.

Charmatz’ work, rather than strictly choreographic, is a dramaturgy articulated by the body and tied to the machinery of theatre. In Entretenir, the book by Charmatz and Launay, there is a fascinating comment on the impossibility of disentangling areas of meaning in the theatre, which also contradicts the modernist desire to establish divisions between artistic disciplines and to conceive of ‘dance’ as such. In this sense it is not about what is usually called a ‘context’. So the light and the music do not ‘add colour’ to a dance that exists entirely in its own right. The ‘context’ is not all around, nor is it an addition, and even less an environment for the movement. It alters its meaning, and is within it.’ Charmatz’ intention, in the symbolic space of the theatre, is to check how all its aspects influence the dancer’s moving body and, vice versa, shape this theatrical context since it is fundamentally tied to the body.

So, dramaturgy is not around the body, but within it. The theatre machinery so elegantly unfolded in the opening scene of Régi thus also penetrates the bodies on the stage that derive their appearance from it. Does this also apply to that other machine on the stage and to the dark, violent forces it symbolises? Etre régi: is not the power of that which directs us, which not only makes our everyday actions possible but also drastically limits them, always within us from the start?


4. Phantoms

Which forces are so overwhelming and traumatic that they paralyse us completely? The answer to this question is undoubtedly different for every spectator. In Régi a whole phantom world unfolds between the bodies of Cima and Charmatz. While they are hanging from the hoist we hear Michael Jackson’s song Billie Jean: ‘... what do you mean I am the one / Who will dance on the floor in the round / She said I am the one, who will dance on the floor in the round ... Billie Jean is not my lover / She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one / But the kid is not my son / She says I am the one, but the kid is not my son.’ The dance thereby suddenly revolves around an absent child, a rejected child that cannot boast paternal recognition.

Before we are able to be tempted into any autobiographical interpretation of the scene, Raimund Hoghe enters the stage and manipulates the inert bodies hanging from the crane, pushing them gently back and forth and ultimately clinging on to Charmatz’ body. Hoghe is the phantom and symbolises the repressed, absent child and so joins the man, the woman and the machine in their choreography. The uncomfortable stillness of their bodies now exudes a sympathetic relationship with the absent and the inert – with the dead. Etre régi: it is the choreography of subjection and unobtrusiveness, and also of memory and mourning.

While Cima’s inert body is carried off on a conveyor belt, Charmatz and Hoghe take off their black costumes and there follows a duet on the floor by the two naked men. The nude is traditionally linked with the ideal, paradisaical body: a natural, unspoiled body that has not yet been eroded by culture and desire. It is a phantasmal body that will always remain absent – in Régi it is evoked by birdsong. In the theatre the nude also goes with the idea of total visibility, here linked with Hoghe’s naked body and the equally absent and suppressed world it symbolises, and with Charmatz’ fatherly body. The choreography for the two naked men is a ritual that is as intimate as it is odd: Charmatz’ intention is to use nakedness to make visible what is ultimately a phantasmal dialogue, an idealisation of the lost child in a melancholy longing. Despite their nakedness, the intimacy between Hoghe and Charmatz is mental in nature, and they have a hold on each other by way of the phantoms that occupy their bodies.

This balance of power between the two men continues to overturn throughout the performance. For instance, Charmatz covers Hoghe’s naked body with his coat, only to be treated to a flood of abuse. But Charmatz is also the author of Régi, who creates this uncomfortable setting and has devised a specific role for Hoghe within it. Towards the end of the performance we hear the sound of studio conversations between Charmatz and Hoghe about the song Billie Jean, the insults and the screaming women in Pina Bausch’s work. Once again it is sounds that give the piece its charge and its context: among other things they make the presence of the creative process felt at the heart of the performance. What is more, both men are thereby again made tangible as people, through or beyond the dark, phantasmal and symbolic reality they embody on stage.


5. Absorption

‘The piece is now called Régi, because the whole choreography is a sub-choreography... subordinate to the performers, who absorb it and make it pointless, subordinate to the insults that generate it while they affect the body of ‘the one who is speaking’, subordinate to the machines that create the choreography on the spot...’ as Charmatz tells us in the programme. ‘The choreography is delegated to stronger forces. The ‘directing’ tries to exist despite its obviously being weak. The key is minor.’ How does one deal with the machinations and phantoms, how does one absorb, filter, process and sweat out the blind choreography? How does one put up resistance to the inevitable failure of this ‘counter-destruction’ beyond the inert? Régi ends with two grotesque dances, perhaps the only possible way of connecting extremes together, of depicting the complex moods that haunt the bodies.

In the course of the male duet Julia Cima is carried off upstage on a conveyor belt, and there ends up on another machine: an inclined conveyor belt that repeatedly transports her inert body upwards and then lets it fall again in an uninterrupted cycle. It is a virtually endless, mechanical choreography in which the machine separates body from movement. Cima gradually builds up her resistance, until she is finally able to master the machine and walks upright. When she steps off the belt and moves around in the space, she performs a grotesque clown dance as if she has internalised not only the mechanical movements but also everything that preceded them, and is able to enter into a relationship with them that is both intimate and aloof.

Raimund Hoghe also performs a grotesque dance, which marks the erasure of Boris Charmatz, while in the meantime the later has also literally vanished from the stage. Hoghe beats his breast, sticks his hands up, runs back and forth, until what remains is something like a shapeless pulp: he absorbs earlier choreographic work by Charmatz, including Les disparates, which is not only filtered but in a certain sense also destroyed in a cannibalistic ritual. ‘Etre régi: I want to choreograph Raimund Hoghe, but he devours every gesture.’ In this grotesque closing dance Charmatz is as a choreographer once again seeking out the deep places inside himself that seem to suggest the extreme consistency of the blind machinations and dark forces that dominate Régi: the phantoms that made it impossible for him to move at the start of the performance are now as it were digesting the whole of his earlier work, and making a radical break. Self-erasure as an aesthetic strategy has made way for an elusive, crushing necessity.


I must often have read, heard and seen such stories, but I was not the father then. I was someone else (someone who liked the extreme, without ever having experienced that there is no way back from that extreme limit. Who – dreaming of extremes while safely in the middle – thought that reality in the hands of ordinary people amounted to nothing, but that reality needed the style of extremist writers to be charged with meaning. That going to extremes was a question of style).

P.F. Thomése, Schaduwkind