Since the start of the pandemic, Boris Charmatz has spent a lot of time in Brussels, where he lives with his family. ‘I was busy with homeschooling, and preparing for Grand Palais (where Charmatz and 19 other artists performed La Ronde, a durational performance based on the eponymous theatre play by Arthur Schnitzler, broadcast by France 5 on January 16, 2021, ed.). I also tried to keep up with my health, with being a dancer. I was running, doing yoga. And I thought a lot about [terrain].’
What is [terrain]?
Boris Charmatz: ‘For now, the [terrain] I have in my head is multiple and doesn’t exist yet. Therefore, I would rephrase ‘what is [terrain]?’ as ‘what will [terrain] be?’ We did a first experiment in Zürich (for 18 days, during the festival Zürcher Theater Spektakel in 2019, ed.). The organizational structure I’ve been working with for the last two years is called [terrain]. And now we’re here talking about my ongoing research. One day [terrain] will exist as an institution. Ideally it would start next year, in 2022. If it could be framed as a national choreographic center in France, there would be a first term of four or five years, which could be extended for three years twice. That is my ideal scenario, but there is no certainty at all for now.’
‘The idea originates from Musée de la danse, a project I did for ten years. Some of its live exhibitions are still touring, but as an institution Musée de la danse has stopped. It dealt with questions related to dance history and museology: how can one build a ‘collection’ of dance works? I was interested in constructing a third space for dance, one that is not a theatre or a dance school. We looked for the ideal architecture for this museum. We tried art schools, we tried the Tate Modern in London, we tried a public square next to an old Soviet memorial in Berlin. Throughout the years our attention shifted from actual museums to public spaces: what could dance do there? It was a complex question because of the increasing social tensions in public spaces in France after the 2015 terror attacks and the measures against being veiled.’
‘Political movements and events like Occupy Wall Street, Nuit Debout, the Arab Spring and the Gilets Jaunes inspired a reflection on “choreographic assemblies”. I imagined these assemblies being composed of movements, dance and gestures, without making any particular political claim. For the participatory project Fous de danse we gathered 16,000 people on one single day on a huge empty plaza in Rennes (where Boris Charmatz ran the Centre chorégraphique national de Rennes et de Bretagne, which he rebaptized Musée de la danse, from 2009 to 2018, ed.). It was crazy. A square of 100 meters by 120. 16,000 people in a city of 200,000 inhabitants.’
‘We realized that this was maybe the ideal architecture for a future institution: the absence of solid architecture. There were no walls, there was no roof. We could alternate between an end-on arrangement, with performers in front of an audience, and the circular set-up of urban dance. We could do a solo, a performance with 20 dancers who seemingly found themselves in 20 different “rooms”, or a giant “Soul Train” involving a mass of participants. There was architecture but it was permeable and continuously performed by a mix of viewers, doers, amateurs, professionals, passers-by… For [terrain] I also want to work with anybody. Everybody.’
Where is [terrain]? Or rather: where will it be?
Charmatz: ‘The test we did in Zürich was completely defined by what Zürcher Theater Spektakel is: a big festival in the summer by the lake. We wanted nothing. Just the grass of the site and the energy of our bodies. After we were gone, the grass would stay as it was. However, to relate to the wooden theatre constructions we were surrounded by during the festival, we realized we needed a structure ourselves. Although this doesn’t mean that the future [terrain] will have that skeleton-like construction as well.’
‘I am now supported by the region Hauts-de-France in the north of France. Two or three years ago they merged the French regions in larger administrative entities. Nord-Pas-de-Calais and La Picardie became Hauts-de-France, which stretches from the north of Paris all the way up to Lille. It is one of the biggest regions in the country and deals with post-industrial unemployment and poverty. You have the migrant camps around Calais. The far-right party Front National scores very high. There’s also a lot of solidarity between institutions, between people. I was thinking: could [terrain] have two legs, one in Paris and one in the north of France? Or could it be located in Brussels, or Charleroi?’
Charleroi would be a very different context than sunny Zürich by the lake!
Charmatz: ‘Absolutely. To be clear: Zürich was just a test. It was great, but [terrain] would never be located there. The main reason why I can’t yet answer the question “what is [terrain]?” or “what will it be?” is its dependence on the actual context. If we located it at Parc de la Vilette – close to the Conservatoire de Paris, the National dance center, the Philharmonie de Paris and Théâtre Paris-Villette – then it would be a completely different [terrain] as would be located in Charleroi, for example.’
In that sense there cannot be a blueprint for [terrain]… Could you imagine your institution-to-come taking root in the countryside instead of a city? From an ecological point of view, one could argue cities are ‘extraterrestrials’ since they make our relations of dependence on the natural environment rather abstract and invisible.
Charmatz: ‘I was born in the French Alps. I love the mountains. There is a whole history of artists and activists that were fed up with city life and moved to the countryside. Take the activists in Larzac in France for example, or Black Mountain College (an experimental arts college that existed from 1933 to 1957 in Black Mountain, North Carolina, ed.), or Monte Verità (a hill in Switzerland which has served as the site of utopian cultural events and communities since the beginning of the 20th century, ed.). Anna Halprin constructed her amazing dance deck in the woods. Simone Forti, Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson found their place in Vermont.’
‘I want to stick to the city though. The biggest of all questions in our times is the one of climate change. Cities will have to reinvent themselves. They are not just a pile of concrete and bricks, but a place for birds, for all kinds of animals. Things are already changing – a bit, not enough. We construct bike lanes, beehives on roofs, collective gardens, urban forests. Making nature part of the city is important for temperature regulation, the state of mind of the citizen and so much more. What role can art play? I imagine a choreographic urban green center… Choreographic, urban and green. Those three terms form the basis for [terrain].’
In the countryside you probably wouldn’t have a lot of social interactions.
Charmatz: ‘Oh, there is social interaction between villages. You can work anywhere, really. Even in a desert! One could reach an audience through satellites for example… However, it is my impulse to rethink the future of the city.’
How did the pandemic influence your ideas?
Charmatz: ‘It forced me to think in the longer term. I believe [terrain] is even more urgent than it was before the pandemic. Does the fight against Covid-19 help us to make the ecological turn we need? People who run a theatre or a festival and who try to rethink their ways of doing, have a lot of possible aspects to work on. They can try to reduce waste, reduce travelling, reduce energy consumption. What I like about [terrain] is that we can start from scratch. Yes, we need to rethink the old institutions, but we need new institution-building as well. How to build an institution without starting from an actual building? Can an institution be “big” without having a big building? I’m not saying that Opéra Garnier or Bozar are just a waste for the environment. However, in France we have these new kinds of institutions, private foundations, like the Fondation Louis Vuitton. In a green area that Parc de Neuilly should be, we plant a huge new art center. I don’t think that is the best thing to do. With 5% of the budget to realize this center, you can do [terrain] for 10 years. Shouldn’t we spend money and energy on people instead of buildings?’
“How to build an institution without starting from an actual building? Can an institution be ‘big’ without having a big building?”
It is a liberating thought in times of ecological breakdown – not having to be busy with reducing what is there, but being able to start from scratch and add something, to let something grow… So [terrain] will have no walls, no roof, no typical dance floor, right? What is your problem with the walls of a theatre?
Charmatz: ‘First I should say that if there were already ten choreographic centers without walls and roofs, I would probably dream of something else. There is a clear usefulness to buildings. I wanted to meet you outside on the terrace but as it is freezing, we are sitting inside. And I love theatres. I can dance naked there. I can do whatever I want. Great. But I’m always sure who’s coming in.’
Having no walls enables different social interactions. It would enable ‘choreographic assemblies’ to be more representative of the diversity of the population.
Charmatz: ‘You could even broaden it by talking about biodiversity. Yes, there are the passers-by and the people who are in the public space anyway – not waiting for us, just being there, eating something, spending time. But you have the animals and the plants as well. Of course, a museum or a theatre is not a neutral space. There are spiders and rats, humidity, bacteria. The virus. Actually, there is less virus outside than inside… Anyway, having no walls will allow for more permeability.’
The absence of a roof on the other hand will confront the audience and the performers with the weather and its unpredictability.
Charmatz: ‘I like the idea that with [terrain] I will connect to the most famous dance film of all times: Singin’ in the Rain. To perform dance ceremonies outside is also a longstanding tradition. We don’t know exactly what was performed on the sacred site at Stonehenge… How we dance will be different. Maybe the show will be shorter. Maybe in winter we will need to perform with gloves. In the summer we will have to protect ourselves against the sun. I like to reinvent the conditions of my art, which means I cannot always do the same work. Wind is maybe one of the biggest challenges. My work often uses the voice and wind has a huge impact on the acoustics. If you don’t deal with it, your voice can get lost.’
‘I say “no walls and no roof” but working on [terrain] has made clear we need toilets, and dressing rooms.’
“My work often uses the voice and wind has a huge impact on the acoustics. If you don’t deal with it, your voice can get lost.”
Places of privacy.
Charmatz: ‘Yes. You come to [terrain], you step out of your daily life, your job. You arrive and suddenly it rains or it’s too hot. There should be a place for you to change clothes. We also thought about a costume that could allow everyone who wants to stay with us for two hours and maybe roll in the mud… Let’s say [terrain] could have a little bit of wall and a little bit of roof.’
A dance floor is a specific kind of floor. [terrain] will probably have a different kind of surface?
Charmatz: ‘The floor for dance is so important. Classical ballet used to be performed on a wooden floor, which is quite slippery. Nowadays we see plastic dance marleys everywhere, including the big opera houses worldwide. Hip hop on the other hand, with its typical head spins, was invented on the marble floors of shopping malls. The kind of floor you dance on influences the kind of dance you do. What we will invent there, at [terrain], will have to be different because there will be a slope, it will be muddy, you will have to go around the trees. Will you step on the plants growing there, or will you avoid them? You won’t be able to do everything you want. It’s ok. You cannot do everything in a theatre either, actually.’
“Hip hop, with its typical head spins, was invented on the marble floors of shopping malls. The kind of floor you dance on influences the kind of dance you do.”
One can choreograph movements of bodies in space and time, but can one choreograph interactions between human and nonhuman entities? Can ecological choreography be something else than a structured form of improvisation?
Charmatz: ‘In the past I have worked with machines. These machines would choreograph human bodies. I worked with adults choreographing children, manipulating them. And with children choreographing adults. I didn’t work on dancing with my plants in the living room… I remember Steve Paxton explaining how the use of the scythe transformed his way of moving. He needed it to cut the grass of the field he lived on. A work not of five minutes, but an hour. He had to rethink how his body moved because of this scythe. [terrain] could confront me with similar kinds of questions.’
[terrain] is your third institution-as-artwork. Before Musée de la danse there was the nomadic school Bocal, which existed from 2002 to 2004.
Charmatz: ‘I couldn’t do Musée de la danse without Bocal, and I couldn’t do [terrain] without Musée de la danse and Bocal. I like to invent, but I also love archeology. I still perform À bras-le-corps, the duet I made with Dimitri Chamblas when I was 19 years old. I’m not someone who likes to cut – next period, next thing, I’m out – and start again from scratch. When I began as a dancer, I wanted to invent. I was asked: please do a new solo, a new thing. This stopped me. I was unable to invent when I was asked to invent. It’s only when I started to dive into memories of feelings and sensations, when I improvised with my luggage, I stopped seeing it as a problem: always doing the same gesture. Apparently, it’s a gesture that doesn’t go away. You want to put it to one side but it keeps coming back.’
Like its predecessors, [terrain] will be a temporary institution. Institutions normally don’t tend to be short-lived. What is the afterlife of yours?
Charmatz: ‘I had to stop with Musée de la danse. I’m an artist, I need to move on. But I still think a Musée de la danse should exist. I will not be the one running it, but it is in fact a 200-year project. Some of the live exhibitions we developed under the umbrella of Musée de la danse are still touring, like 20 danseurs pour le XXe siècle for example. I am not pretending that we influenced the whole world but 12 years ago, people thought we were out of our mind. They thought it was a joke, or even the death of live art – because when you enter a museum, it must mean you’re dead. Things have changed in the meantime. Now it feels more like a shared project. MoMA and Tate Modern show dance works and acquire dance scores. More and more theaters include exhibitions in their programs.’
What could be the transformative potential of [terrain]? Does it propose another way of being in the world, a more locally rooted one? Contemporary dance is one of the most internationalized performing arts. We’ve known about the ecological crisis for a while now, but I get the impression it is only since the machine came to a halt because of the pandemic, that the unsustainable aspects of international travel are questioned thoroughly in the performing arts world.
Charmatz: ‘I may have a slightly different point of view. Dance was often concerned with nature. Look at the work of Isadora Duncan for example, dealing with wind, trees, ocean waves and other natural phenomena. Theaters often have to transport huge sets with trucks. Dancers cannot afford these kinds of sets. But yes, at a certain point we realized that we use the plane too much. The problem with climate change is that you discover that what you do as an individual is not enough. It is not enough. Twenty years ago, we thought: ah, I eat organic food. I’m good!’
‘I believe travelling should not only be seen within the frame of environmental damage though. We need to find new ways of travelling, but my essence is nomadic. If I had stayed in Chambéry, my local town, I wouldn’t be a dancer. Maybe it has something to do with my generation? Especially now, we need to be more globally-connected. I’m a fighter for the local and the international. Carrots, yes. It is stupid to bring carrots from Spain. But dance? There is flamenco dance and I honestly believe we should see it. If we only think local from now on, we will miss something and I am going to be a rebel.’
Does your previous work on museology inspire a reflection on ecologically sustainable art practices? Doesn’t the modernist thirst for innovation, also in the field of the arts, have some affinities with the unsustainable economic principle of creative destruction? The museum on the other hand has to do with conserving, caring for, repairing, renovating, remembering…
Charmatz: ‘We invented museums. We invented museums of modern art. There was a moment when it was unthinkable to have a museum of contemporary art. The museum had nothing to do with the contemporary. I’m just saying that it is an idea-on-the-move. And of course, a museum taking care of its paintings doesn’t prevent it from showing them. Even though your breath is damaging their surfaces. Your humidity. The light. All of this is damaging the painting you want to see. The best museum would be one without an audience, actually. You could say that’s what we need to do with the world… We have to ‘save it’, but we still need to eat, to live, to breathe, to shit…’
‘I’m a fucking dancer. I follow my dancer’s desires. I am not only following the ecological needs of the now. If as an artist, as a dancer, I feel I should drive a car, I would do it. In fact I don’t have a car, I have a bike. It doesn’t matter. I believe it is important that artists and dancers enter the environmental debate with their burning art.’
“I’m a fucking dancer. I follow my dancer’s desires. I am not only following the ecological needs of the now. If as an artist, as a dancer, I feel I should drive a car, I would do it.”
‘We have a lot of new green mayors in France. I am so glad about it. But as a dancer, I think it’s a nightmare. Grenoble has a great new mayor, but right after he started he cut the subsidies of an amazing baroque ensemble. He did what even the far right wouldn’t dare to do. He didn’t say: ‘in three years we will diminish your funding, unless you reinvent this or that…’ No, he just cut it in one second. In Lyon, the political program of the new green mayor had one single page on culture, which dealt mostly with the horrible fête des lumières. In that city you have roman theaters, an opera house, a maison de la danse, one of the biggest music conservatoires in France… There is a problem with art and ecology. I believe we cannot invent the city of the future without burning art in the process.’
‘It’s a little bit as with Europe. We started with the Euro, we didn’t start with culture. Now we need to insist on making burning art in a non-burning new world. We don’t need to burn oil but we need to burn art. Art has to do with excess, with deregulation, while ecology has to do with regulation and control. Yes, we need this regulation, we need this control, but we need excess as well. To make the control desirable.’
Sometimes I get the impression that the contradiction resembles the complex struggle between Eros and Thanatos.
Charmatz: ‘We have to spend less, consume less energy. There are a lot of rules we have to follow. I am not saying that artists will be against the ecological policies. Of course we are pro. But we also need to be part of the new city. In New York you have Central Park. It’s great. But New York is jazz. New York is New York. Without human activity, invention, art… I don’t want to be part of the future city.’