The dancing museum & the politics of public space

Keith Gallasch: Boris Charmatz, Nina Beier & Meryl Tankard

Manger, Boris Charmatz, Kunstenfestivaldesarts-Bozar, 2015

Manger, Boris Charmatz, Kunstenfestivaldesarts-Bozar, 2015

Manger, Boris Charmatz, Kunstenfestivaldesarts-Bozar, 2015

“There are more armed soldiers than non-armed dancers in public spaces.”
Boris Charmatz

Recent threats to public space in Europe come from terrorism on the one hand and the incursion of the state with surveillance and weapons on the other. We have felt the latter in Sydney—after the Cronulla riots in 2006 and the 2007 Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit and the government’s consequent purchase of a still unused $700,000 water cannon. Increased restrictions on public protest, over-determined security laws and the commercialisation and constant threat of appropriation of under-funded public and national parks have grown to alarming proportions, potentially undoing the enlightened beneficence of our 19th and early 20th century forbears.

French choreographer Boris Charmatz, director of Musée de la danse, framed his keynote address for the 20th Biennale of Sydney (the session was chaired by the Biennale’s Artistic Director, Stephanie Rosenthal) in terms of current threats to public space and the loss of communality and democratic confrontation that accompanies it. In this context he presented the intriguing notion of a living museum of dance and, in doing so, suggested a possible relationship between performance and public space to include the traditional art museum, if conditionally.

Charmatz’ vision is vigorously political. He addressed the anxieties shared by many of us regarding the “contemporary stress about togetherness.” He says of his own country’s public spaces, such as town squares, that as well as offering communality they have been “places of paroxysm and questioning…historically places of confrontation in the 1960s and since then peaceful, even asleep, sites of anaesthesia.” But “recently everything has changed; public space has almost disappeared as a place of creation for the common, the encounter, the open construction of identity and differentiation.” He ascribes this condition “to social exclusion, homelessness, the abandonment of refugees… and more armed soldiers than non-armed dancers in public spaces.” He decided that “public space would become the place of Musée de la danse,” creating a series of actions minus “the cliches of street theatre.” There would be no costumes, sets, special lighting, just “dance as fire, burning all day, noon to midnight.” In the process, social dance would become an artwork “with the absence of sharp demarcations on all fronts” between dancers and the public, and creating “new moving postures for the body for civic communion.”

Charmatz sees “dance as the medium to encounter political failure, [bringing together] bodies that would otherwise not touch; a medium adapted [to undo] the malaise of the public space.”


Dance and maybe the museum

Charmatz was emphatic that his and his collaborators’ mission is not to treat art galleries, referred to throughout as museums or art museums, as venues for dance performances. Rather, his Musée de la danse, based in Rennes in Brittany, is “a living archive,” as yet without a major building of its own but embodied in Charmatz and his dancers who have performed the work we were about to see, Manger. This and other works have been performed in town squares, parks, at MoMA and Tate Modern, occupying those spaces with a site-specific intent to create living, ephemeral art objects in, as he put it, “permeable spaces.” (See Charmatz’ 2009 manifesto for a National Choreographic Centre.)

Museums are not ideal for dance, Charmatz said, citing critical issues of humidity and temperature control for the preservation of artworks. Working in a space with an architect in Utrecht he had “visitors dance like hell.” Once they’d left, he could “sense the space was still hot, a white box wet with sweat.” Exhibiting dance in a museum is no simple matter.

Rosenthal’s vision, manifest in her dance-oriented Biennale performance program (still unfolding; see our guide) and her questions to Charmatz after his address is to open up the museum to the ephemeral, expanding the sense of it as a public space and questioning the nature of art. Charmatz was again clear: he does not wish “to integrate dance with art museums or challenge their limits.” What Musée de la danse brings to a public space, he says, is an “archaeology in the body” which “can dialogue with the space and its art objects. We deal with their collection [by juxtaposing it] with ours.”

A key work exhibited in a variety of spaces is Charmatz’ 20 Dancers for the 20th Century first performed in a regional gallery and then MoMA. In Paris’ Palais Garnier opera house its audience strolled grand hallways, stairwells and the library, encountering 20 performers each demonstrating three solo gestures from 100 years of dance steps, including those of Charlie Chaplin, Merce Cunningham, Yvonne Rainer, Michael Jackson and Trisha Brown. (See below an account of Meryl Tankard’s personal archival performance at the MCA.)

Charmatz was in agreement with Rosenthal about the current condition of contemporary art museums: “they are not so stable, not so far apart now [from Musée de la danse],” given technological and other changes in the arts. Rosenthal said that while the visual arts are “getting away from the object and saying we want to embrace the ephemeral, you [Charmatz] ask how to collect the ephemeral. Your radicality lies in using the word ‘museum’.” He laughed. “Everyone was against it… Dancers thought they would be musée-ified.” But “it’s not a laboratory for visual art and dance collaboration… [it’s] a place to welcome the muses. If we [dancers] can’t welcome them who can?”

On Performance Curation is the subject for a discussion between Stephanie Rosenthal with Edward Scheer at the IO Myers Studio, UNSW, 20 April, 6.30pm (reservations). Australian choreographers, dancers and the public will gather to discuss their relationships, actual and potential, with the art museum in Choreography and the Gallery, a 2-8pm gathering at the Art Gallery of NSW, 27 April (reservations).


Meryl Tankard in performance for Nina Beier’s The Complete Works

Meryl Tankard in performance for Nina Beier’s The Complete Works

Meryl Tankard in performance for Nina Beier’s The Complete Works

Nina Beier’s The Complete Works: Meryl Tankard

On Sunday 10 April at the MCA, for the Danish Berlin-based artist Nina Beier’s The Complete Works series, Australian dancer Meryl Tankard, long-time principal member of Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal Tanztheater and choreographer, performed a series of dance fragments for some 90 minutes in a crowded gallery, carving out space in which to dance. Each fragment was a physical recollection of part of a work performed across a long career; each was unannounced, some revealed an exertion of memory or the odd moment of amused forgetfulness in an informal presentation. Most revealed a well-preserved subtle dexterity of movement, fluent gesturing and some demanding articulation: a hip that constantly and comically drops as the dancer attempts to sustain an elegant walk. Moments from Bausch works that we recognised, like Kontakthof (1978), were the most potent and affecting. Above all there was Tankard’s dance theatre sensibility—a sly smile, flashes of comic anger and engaging if fleeting characterisations, including those of semi-autobiographical childhood memories in her own work, Two Feet (1988).

In The Complete Works, Beier “invites a retired dancer to dance every piece of choreography that they have learnt, enacted in chronological order. The piece is simultaneously a history of a choreographic vocabulary, collectively recognisable, while also invoking the personal history of the dancer’s experiences.” Despite the specificity of the brief, the outcome was inevitably impressionistic, save for those in the audience who might have seen many of Tankard’s performances. What was recognisable was a particular identity and presence. Pleasure was felt in watching a dancer engage in active recall, in witnessing a personal archive flickering by and delighting in recognising and having immediately called to mind performances experienced long ago. This is the ‘archive’ as ephemeral art, not as object, unless made so, say as a video of the performance, if Beier’s intent goes that far.

Video Ben Symons, courtesy Biennale of Sydney.

Boris Charmatz, Keynote Address, 20th Biennale of Sydney, Carriageworks, 19 March; Nina Beier, The Complete Works, dancer Meryl Tankard, MCA, Sydney, 10 April

RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016, web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

13 April 2016