Boris Charmatz

Performa 11 hosts a living exhibition: Muse de la Danse: Expo Zro.

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Boris Charmatz

Boris Charmatz Photograph: Liselotte Habets

The Muse de la Danse is an outlier—an open space used to preserve not objects, but thoughts, gestures, stories. In Muse de la Danse: Expo Zro, the ever-fascinating French choreographer Boris Charmatz presents the first project created during his tenure as the director of the Rennes and Brittany National Choreographic Centre. (To widen the notion of a choreographic center, he renamed the institution Muse de la Danse.) In Expo Zro, reconceived for New York and presented by Performa 11, viewers encounter a selection of individuals from the worlds of dance, visual art, philosophy and architecture, including Valda Setterfield, Joan Jonas, Eleanor Bauer, Marcus Steinweg and Fadi Toufiq. This interactive experience features rooms barren of objects, yet full of possibilities. Maybe it's the preservation of the history and future of dance, and maybe it's not. It's a paradox.

What were the beginnings of Muse de la Danse?
It started because there was a contradiction in the words, and I was interested in this complexity. I had thoughts about public spaces for dance. Of course, we have two institutions: dance schools and theaters. I like both, but I was wondering, Why are there not so many third spaces? Spaces that aren't trapped in the same way that schools and theaters are? What could it be to invent a new kind of public space and to see what you could find in these contradictions of museums and dance? Basically we asked ourselves, Why is there no dance museum? Of course there are: There's one in Cuba, in Stockholm—but still in 2009, 2010, the idea was that this dancing museum doesn't exist. What could it be to invent a new kind of public space and to see what you could find in these contradictions of museums and dance? Basically, what was nice in this project is that it could be an open question. We didn't have the answer.

So what is Muse de la Danse?
During the last three years, we have had what we call in France chantier—it's a building site. Not to build a concrete architecture, but to really put in question what could the Muse de la Danse be, and after three years—exactly after New York—we will sit down and discuss, Okay, what did we do? What kind of collection did it build? What kind of public space are we or aren't we? And basically, the Expo Zro asks exactly those questions. We are asking what a Muse de la Danse could be to many different kinds of artists and personalities: architects, critics, visual artists, dancers, actors.

After the New York performances it will be three years since you started. Is that a date you gave yourself?
In fact, the structure of Muse de la Danse is based in Rennes, in Brittany, which is two hours from Paris by train. It's a very active city and region with a lot of newcomers and students. It's also a very active region in terms of support for the arts and culture. [I direct] the National Choreographic Centre. We have four of them in France, and the first contract is for three years. So this is why we said, What do we do for the first three years? Okay: We do Muse de la Danse, but as a chantier, so something like a museum-in-progress. And we'll do three more years, but let's say we sit down and look at what we did, and then I'm quite sure we'll do three more years. But of course, when you start a museum, you're not thinking about three years. You're thinking about 200 years! Somehow this is what is nice about the idea of making a museum. So this is not only for the next premiere or to open the season, but to take time to reflect. How could we experience it, visit it, read it, do it?

How did you choose the artists?
The first edition of Expo Zro was in September of 2009 in Rennes. After that, we did an edition in Singapore and in Utrecht [Netherlands]. We try to have a mixed group. Coming to New York, it's not the Rennes Muse de la Danse or the Brittany Muse de la Danse; what we are creating for Performa is the New York Museum of Dance. So we tried to build a team that is between America and Europe. And we tried to have not only dancers, but to have critics, performers, actors and people who we would love to meet, or people who we think could survive this project of Expo Zro. In New York, we have an architect, Jan Liesegang—he's part of a collective, raumlabor, which we really like. He's coming to reflect on what could be a Muse de la Danse, but from the brain of an architect. If you're directing MoMA and want a new space for MoMA, it's completely different then if you think, Okay, we are creating a new Muse de la Danse. We start with no collection: What does that mean in terms of a building, architecture? And then we have Jim Fletcher who is an actor. Of course, you know him.

Oh, yes.
I don't know him, so I'm very happy. We can have a battle together in the frame of the exhibition. And then Eleanor Bauer is a dancer, choreographer, performer. She is based now in Brussels, so she is a link between two worlds that are sometimes too separate: the American dance scene and the European dance scene. Valda Setterfield is someone I met on another project called 50 years of dance. It's a project where we work in a very short amount of time—four or five days—on a book by David Vaughan: 50 Years [about Merce Cunningham]. The idea is that we learn by heart all the pictures from the front page to the last page, so the result is that the performance is like a flip book. You know, the little books where you use your thumb to turn the pages? What we do onstage is this very fast process where we have 300 pictures that we flip, so that there is someone in front of the stage who is flipping the book and we are basically doing everything that they show in this book, from John Cage laughing to the company in front of a helicopter before a tour. And then, of course, there are a lot of excerpts from the pieces with Merce.

Who are the performers?
I worked with nondancers on this project; I worked with a visual-art student, I worked with friends, but I also did one version for ex-Cunningham dancers, and Valda was one of them. I enjoyed very much working with her and, of course, she is a dancing museum. Her body is one. So of course it's very different from talking to an architect, because she knows so many things. And she worked with Cunningham in the '60s and '70s, and I think it's very nice to have her. Maybe, in dance, the main space for a museum is the body, or where we store our memories. I'm quite sure, even for my own choreographies, I have videos and archives and stuff, but the main source is that I remember the pieces I did. So there's Valda. There are very young artists as well, like Alex Baczynski-Jenkins—he's very interesting. He's only been a professional for two years, and he was a student of mine in Berlin; he is half-Polish and half-English, and he's working with Meg Stuart. He's an amazing interpreter, and I think it's best that Muse de la Danse is not only concerned with people who are already recognized. There's also a very young dancer, Lenio Kaklea. Alors, who am I forgetting?

Marcus Steinweg?
Of course. He's a philosopher. I don't know him; I mean, of course I know his work, and I got to know him because he was working with Thomas Hirschhorn, a visual artist that I really admire. It's also an opportunity to meet, to discuss, to see what we think about this Muse de la Danse project. And then in Expo Zro, there is a kind of think tank. We work together collectively before and literally one question is, What would be the Charmatz Muse de la Danse? We have very different kinds of answers, and we open this process to the visitors; we are kind of guides to these visions or potentialities of what Muse de la Danse could be. But when it works, it happens, so to speak, because if I consider that Isadora Duncan should be in this Muse de la Danse, maybe I can perform the dances I know from Isadora Duncan, and we can talk about it and discuss why or why not should she be in museum, and with what media, in what kind of format.

So basically the question is quite subjective.
We do not build a program for Muse de la Danse, but we are really thinking from our own backgrounds. What is nice in Expo Zro is that instead of having one display, the idea is that we are a kind of guide, and there are eight different displays for this exhibition. Because if you follow me, you will have a complete other idea than if you would follow Jim Fletcher. When you visit, you may stay only with me and you have only the idea that we are sharing together, or you go a little bit with Jim Fletcher and a little bit with me and a little bit with someone else, and then you have another idea of what Muse de la Danse can be.

And you can choose your own time and person to follow?
Of course! It's very much improvised and in-process. I cannot guarantee anything. [Laughs] But the idea is that basically you visit and we are there. Usually, it's more a place to be lost. So you are visiting; we are there, and it's very informal how dance may appear or how a discussion may start or how a performance may occur. We are not 50 performers or 50 personalities. If you want, you see everybody, of course, but the longer you stay, the better you get an idea of the complexity of the exhibition. If you go very quickly, you see nothing basically. It's empty. There are some people gathering or discussing a bit, so the more you stay, the more things happen in your own head. The idea is that if it works, everybody is looking for Muse de la Danse. Is it an interesting idea? Is it a dead idea because museum sounds too much like a hospital or a mausoleum? It's only if you take the time to stay, to experiment, to think, to dance, to try or to watch that when you go out you take the Muse de la Danse with you. The art of this Muse de la Danse is inside you. You take it with you when you leave.

It just depends on how you feel how long you stay? Yeah, yeah. It depends on the participants. The opening hours are quite long. I remember very well, Tim Etchells from Forced Entertainment—he is English and was part of one of the former editions—had really a very clear performance where he invited the visitors one by one. They had to pay. [Laughs] It's free, the exhibition, but he asked for one euro. He would say, "I make two presents for you." One was that he would perform or talk about one movement that he remembered or that his friend sent by e-mail or something, and then the second present was that you, as a viewer, had to give one movement to offer to the Muse de la Danse, to the collection. I felt it was cheating. He said that there were two presents, but in fact you had to give one movement yourself as a viewer. Of course, it creates a present for yourself: You are offering a movement, you allow yourself to do something. But he started this project and wanted to do it for the two or three days after the opening, but after four hours he changed his mind and started improvising with the children visiting and someone else did his performance. This is why you never know completely what's going to happen.

That's great. But it's interesting that you use the word museum because it is antiquated in a way.
Yes. We see dance as a live art, and we see museum as a space for dead objects. Is it mere collection of objects? It should be a museum of movement, of ideas, for experiencing things. Art museums are very afraid now because they missed the performance moment, they missed performance art, because they were supposedly only for objects. And dancers, they are writing, they are making scores and, of course, they are producing films. The big difference... I always take this example of Beaubourg at Centre Pompidou: You go in the foyer downstairs and you have dance videos, and then it's, 'Ah! I'm looking at some piece by Pina Bausch,' but if I were to really experience Pina Bausch, then I have to go to Thtre de la Ville to see it onstage. And it's presented with multiscreens; you have films, one after the other, and then you go into the visual-art exhibition, and then you have a film by Bill Viola. And then you are very sure that you're in front of the art of Bill Viola. It's not about the art of Bill Viola, it's the art itself. And in dance, still very often and even though we are working with video, with text, with pictures, with discussions, there is still this idea that if I am writing, I'm not making dance. I'm writing about dance and of course the Muse de la Danse has something to say about the fact that Hijikata, the founder of Butoh in Japan, wrote not about his artwork. He was writing because he needed to write, and in the writing you have the whole Butoh experience. So it's not documentation of the process. I think if you read what is there, you have the entire energy, the strength of Butoh. It's really a necessity to consider some of the writings about dance or writings by dancers as dance itself. So, between the museum and the live art, there are many more connections than what we first saw. We always think dance is a silent art form where dancers don't speak, they are dancing. But in fact, if you go into any dance studio, dancers are discussing like hell, like I'm doing now. I was completely shy and I was not talking before I started doing dance—but I end up talking on the phone with you in New York. So dance brought me to talk, it brought me to write, so in that sense, of course, it's a body media. I love to sweat in a dance studio and I'm not underestimating this power of moving, but in fact dance is more a symbolic space where you do write, you do speak, you do hear.

Is Muse de la Danse a political act on your part to some degree? Do you see it in that way?
Political, but let's say with a small p. We are having presidential elections next March and that's Political with a big p. There are issues with war and peace that are with a big p. Of course, it's about moving walls—the walls of what museums are and what dance is or is supposed to be. And somehow it's a way to suddenly work together with people who would not meet. I'm not sure Marcus Steinweg would work with Valda Setterfield would work with Heman Chong would work with me. But somehow, with this Muse de la Danse, suddenly there are new connections, new productions, and new art has to be invented because we are not so much a place to collect. Our main question is not, What can we say about the amazing works that are being done now or have been done in the '60s, '70s or have been done in the '30s or whatever, but it's more we have to invent this music. It doesn't exist. The collection starts from zero. So what do we do? What is there to be invented? Expo Zro is the first project with this museum. It's the start of it. But in this start you have it all already, and this I really like. After Expo Zro, we've had many more projects or projects with objects, but it's a specific state of things, and it's political because it's very important to have schools and it's very important to have theaters where dance can be performed. It's also very important to invent—it's not new formats, but you can have public space where the dance and the city has another kind of relationship. And I would say also a new kind of viewer could rise from this project, in terms of how you experience dance. If you have five hours when you wish, it's very different from a performance that is at 8pm in the theater. With a museum, of course you think about the white box, but it's also about time. Basically, the idea with museums is that you can go today, but you can always come back tomorrow and you will be able to visit again and to see it again. It will repeat. And even though Expo Zro is a temporary project, the Muse de la Danse is an opportunity to say, Okay you missed something, but you can come tomorrow. You can have more time. Even if Expo Zro is a very short exhibition, it offers time to you as a visitor, to pass by, to spend two hours with Valda Setterfield if you want and then to visit Heman Chong, who is an amazing curator--artist, and to get to know what is in his mind for a new kind of museum. It offers time. In that sense, it is political.

Muse de la Danse: Expo Zro is at the Performa Hub Nov 4--6.

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