A noisy political phantasm

Boris Charmatz presents 'Levée des conflits' at Théâtre de la ville in Paris

Corpus 16 Dec 2010English

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If the first gesture sets the contract for a dance performance, then which is this first gesture? A woman enters the stage from the auditorium, walks a few steps, sits down and starts to polish the floor with a steady waxing movement, which makes the dance floor appear as a large, silver mirror. It is a gesture thick with memory and projection, with resonances of work and gender, representation and recognition – containing a whole world in which things appear to be familiar, clear and mapped out. Not much later, this first gesture will be absorbed by a canon of movements, by a crowd of people, perhaps even drowned in the chaos that ensues.

Playing with the cultural and historical density of gestures, to then thwart and unsettle the expectations through setting a different choreographical contract, a different organization of time and space – this is a strategy common in Boris Charmatz’ work. Backtracking now, haven’t we perhaps overlooked the first gesture?


There is the title: Levée des conflits. The phrase “suspension of conflicts” stems from Roland Barthes’ lectures on the neutral, or better the “desire for neutral,” which he explores in a series of random figures without actually defining the term. His interest is structural, the neutral “everything that baffles the paradigm,” that goes against the grain of structure and differentiation, the set of conflicts that produce meaning. Barthes links the desire for neutral with two elements: “suspension (épochè) of orders, laws, summons, arrogances, terrorisms, puttings on notice, the will-to-possess”; and “refusal of pure discourse of opposition.” And he adds: “The desire for the Neutral continually stages a paradox: as an object, the Neutral means suspension of violence; as a desire, it means violence.” An inexpressible violence, which can be staged though as a paradox.

Or maybe the first gesture comes with the program note handed out in the lobby before entering the theatre? Like Barthes, choreographer Boris Charmatz says to depart from a phantasm: “a piece entirely composed of the gestures given by the dancers themselves: everyone would contribute a gesture which makes up the matter of the choreographical canon. That would be beautiful, no? It’ll be for another time…” Yet another first gesture suspended. But not the political desire residing in it, as Charmatz calls Levée des conflits a “mental choreography” that finds an actual form for the duration of the performance. “One doesn’t broach the group or the mass of individuals without thinking of the polis and the collective movements that oscillate between the suspension of time and confrontation.”

And then upon entering the theatre, with the audience gathering in their seats and the 24 dancers mingling with them, it is clear how much the question of living together is at home in the theatre. Models of collaboration, representations of the social, and a temporary community of people watching come together in group choreographies, with all of this making contemporary dance an eminent place for reflection on the social and its political overtones. All the while the large, empty stage is lit atmospherically, welcoming desire and phantasm before taking on an actual corporeal shape.


A woman enters the stage from the auditorium, walks a few steps, sits down and starts to polish the floor with a steady waxing movement. Its pulse inspires a gradual transformation of the gesture into the movement of a rocking bottom, upon which a second dancer enters and starts to wax, setting up a canon that will after a while include 24 dancers. Mostly the gestures take over the whole body, from complex movement material to simple actions like wandering, jumping, falling or rolling. This fairly heterogeneous collection of movements vacillates between the abstract and the concrete, the prosaic and the poetic, sometimes resonates with dance history, but also evokes very different aspects of life: work, art, leisure, sex, sleep, conflict, and so on. The rhythm or pulse seems to connect all of it, and touches upon an array of associations, from the transformative to the mechanical and the Tayloristic rhythm of work to the sexual and the musical. At first every single gesture is legible, but when seven or eight dancers execute the different materials all at once, there is too much to be seen, and when all 24 dancers are on stage, the whole looks altogether scattered and fuzzy – only a group unison near the end will bring back clarity to each individual gesture.

The music supports and even illustrates this development: the soundtrack (Olivier Renouf) is a motley mix of contemporary musics (from Henry Cowell to Terror Squad), which at best reminds of the noisy, cacophonous acoustic territories mapped out by youngsters, using their cell phones as ghetto blasters in public transport, but then multiplied. Noise, the equal distribution and entropy of signs, could very well be a figure of the desire for neutral.

All the dancers appear as themselves, that is as individuals with their own clothes, which has the funny effect that they also stage their own “dance persona.” Their personal appropriation of the score reveals small differences, yet is this a matter of interpretation only or does it have compositional weight? Next to the concatenation and interpretation of gestures, there are small occurrences and interactions within the score, but as much overwhelming brouhaha and parasitic movements. In the overall form, noise reigns Levée des conflits, yet its structural underpinning remains equally present. What exactly does it afford?


Levée des conflits is a hybrid monster, but also a space of happenstance and emergence, with both performers and spectators gathering and connecting striking details, working their way through the chaos. As a space for real time agency on the part of the dancers and spectators, it produces joy and precision, but inevitably also inattention and boredom. Are these by-products of liberty, somewhat pushed to extremes through the performance’s durational character (100 minutes in total)? What is the “social contract” at work in Levée des conflits?

The piece opens up a highly paradoxical space indeed. Both the choreographic structure and the dissemination of events and parasitic movement are systemic. The movement material has a collective history but now doesn’t seem to belong to anybody. The authorship is diffuse, and so is the place of the individual dancer in the whole. Is this just the difference between a group and a mass choreography? Or does Levée des conflits in its noisy thrust rather tinker with our desire for difference, heterogeneity and agency, those stakeholders of the postmodern phantasm of theatre as an emancipatory realm?

The “suspension of conflicts” shuns a punch line, so that its desire can remain lingering in the paradoxical space it aims for. As a political phantasm put to the choreographical test, Charmatz’ Levée des conflits is an interesting, contemporary and also important experiment. But it is not quite sultry in its atmosphere, nor yielding an engaging formal result – for that, it counts perhaps too much on the diffusion of “mental choreographies.”