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Reflections on 10,000 Gestures

photograph of dancers on a stage
photograph of dancers on a stage
© Tristram Kenton/The Observer, Boris Charmatz 10000 Gestes Volksbühne Berlin 2018 © Gianmarco Bresadola
Written by
Post-Grad Community
Published date
10 July 2019

A review of the recent Boris Charmatz 10000 gestures dance performance at the Tate Modern - written by Sara True, MA Performance Design and Practice, Central Saint Martins.

One by one they come on stage, the dancers.

photograph of dancers on a stage
© Tristram Kenton/The Observer, Boris Charmatz 10000 Gestes Volksbühne Berlin 2018 © Gianmarco Bresadola

We, the audience filtering in and out on this Sunday afternoon, watch from the temporary rafters imposed over this temporary dance space in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.

Dancers appear and disappear. Their emphatic movements leave a lingering electric trace.

We are watching the solos now, Danae and I. Without applause or fanfare, with no announcement, solo dancer after solo dancer explodes onto the stage, performing movements and gestures that range from cinematic to pastiche, from balletic profundity to acrobatic breakdancing, from thrusting sexuality to infantile squirming. Some emerge screaming, literally yelling for our attention, passing the performer who preceded them with the same impervious manner that subsequent ocean waves overtake previous waves.

They are moving, as the present is- a life in constant motion.

This three hour succession of passing bodies in motion forms the prelude to Boris Charmatz’s “10,000 Gestures”, a choreographic explication of the frenetic fragmented state of contemporary life and commentary on the ephemeral nature of art.

Performed by over twenty dancers, the selection of successive solos this afternoon reads like sketches for a vast fresco, introducing the audience to Charmatz’s choreographic language at play. Over a long and engaging afternoon, we are granted time to focus on subtleties, to attune our watching gaze to the particular brand of manic humour and tender underlying poeticism of this high-energy piece before the later full-company barrage.

Dancers sprint across the stage. Dancers leap. Dancers masturbate. Dancers cry. Dancers groan.

Like Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, peopled with tiny figures enacting seemingly endless combinations and permutations of everyday life, “10,000 Gestures” presents a wild portrait of human society, culture as portrayed by a madman on speed fiercely determined to solve a Rubik’s cube. Facets of continuity appear and disappear: certain gestures repeat in the bodies of each dancer, enacted differently enough that the theme hides within them, so unlike the rigidly structural directions of ballet, in which the structure is elaborated as the celebratory event. Here we can discern a choreographic thematic rooted in improvisation and individual interpretation. It seems, in moments, as though Charmatz would like to do away with choreography altogether, as if to say- who needs direction! We are here, portraying the actuality of Life! An exaltation of humanity’s glorious randomness.

And yet the piece is choreographed. At its worst, dozy, at its best, electrifying, it seems somehow appropriate that there are long moments that do fall flat. One needs a little flatness amidst all this stimulation. Rest notes between bursts. Most dancers emerge wildly, performing acrobatic feats, rapidfire gestural movements, and then clambering into and over the audience, counting aloud in French, enacting an improvised gesture for each count- gyrating atop one audience member, switching the hats of two others, kissing one, swiveling through others, climbing over heads, through seats, slipping under legs, stealing, borrowing. In this way the audience, still separate from the main attraction, also becomes participant- like a child invited to stroke an animal at the zoo. Though in this case, the zoo of wild energy has been unleashed, onto, and over, and around us, a hurricane of dancers in motion.

After three hours of this: of one dancer, then another, of sketches and slight improvisations, comes the main event: 10,000 Gestures.

Charmatz intended for the piece to be a “forest of choreographic gestures”. Assistant choreographer Magali Caillet-Gajan, with whom I spoke in the break between solos and finale, mentioned excitedly that “10,000 Gestures” would be “like rain”, that the dancers were instructed to do “this thing fast, this thing slow,” to make up moves based on a series of simple shared thematics that could be interpreted differently- including a category of gestures that could be “whatever”.

We the audience are invited to witness this funfair of energy, this whirling traveling circus. The piece begins with the by-now-familiar format: lights go on, a solo dancer runs onstage and begins her dance. Ending her solo, she is joined by twenty fellow dancers, ranging in age from early 20’s to mid-50’s, representing an ever-so-slightly diverse cast- for this audience member, the lack of apparent diversity among the dancers here did detract from the overall piece. I wondered how this “choreographic forest” could be improved by presenting a more colourful diversity of dancers.

In interviews, Charmatz has proposed that the body of a dancer becomes a living museum of all the choreographies she has performed. If this is so, then the dancer’s in “10,000 Gestures” become an archive of insatiable energy. Running, falling, clustering and ungrouping, gesturing with faces and hands, the hour-long piece feels less like rain or forest than frenetic petri dish of molecular activity. It would be impossible to witness it all, and so the audience member must let it sweep over. We, seated in the front row, had the added components of smell and glistening sweat, of watching chests heave with laboured breathing, rendering the dancers- often untouchable- as fully human.

Humanity laid bare amidst chaos- dancers jumping atop each other, dancers with their heads in each other’s crotches and assholes, dancers reduced (and elevated) to an abject sublime. After so many afternoon hours of watching many of these same performers pass each other without acknowledging, with near- touches, the sudden onslaught of ramming, jamming, crashing, grasping body-on-body contact is delightfully jarring- a significance the audience who have only arrived for the finale would lose.

It is in the details that “10,000” Gestures shines for me- a rare moment of stillness, with dancers scattered across the flat stage in a balanced composition, is punctuated by subtle finger motions. I wished it had lasted longer- a drawn out stillness would have packed more of a wallop than the dance improv workshop feeling provided by the dancers forming lines in a square around the space, taking turns sprinting across the dance floor. In weak moments like this, it felt like Charmatz was still teasing out language, had run out of things to say.

The piece rang truest when the dancers, clustered together, presented painterly compositions of nearby and far-away gesture. And then the entire troupe overtook the audience, carrying some audience members back onstage with them, disrupting others in the now-familiar tornado.

By the end of the finale, at the end of the day, one came away re-invigorated, with the feeling of having just spoken for hours with a very animated, highly sexed, wildly excitable friend. A friend who came and went in a flashy blaze, and left you with an attentiveness to the gestures around you. So in the end, the world is thrust into the conversation provoked by the piece, and, like the spread of bacteria, yawns, or giddy laughter, the audience transmits it.

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