Dance Dance Revolution
Last weekend, dancer and choreographer Boris Charmatz hypothetically transformed Tate Modern into Musée de la danse. Our editor-at-large was harbouring some reservations about this new democratic participatory art, but found it surprisingly moving.
Grammar purists would have had many reasons to object to the title of last weekend’s dance bonanza “If Tate Modern was Musée de la danse?” which was visible in big letters as you came down the ramp of the Turbine Hall. At its base, dancers (often along with the public) were, over more than eight hours on both Friday and Saturday, performing pieces by the dancer and choreographer Boris Charmatz, who had conceived the project as a kind of takeover not only of the Turbine Hall but also of the collection galleries. There, museum purists would have had many reasons to object to the presence of music and dancers performing as part of Charmatz’s 20 Dancers for the XX Century.
Between two Christopher Wool works was an amp where the East London dancer Big Shush started his performance of krump style street dancing. In the Cy Twombly room, Julian Weber was working with material from Meg Stuart. In a room with Rineke Dijkstra works, I was mesmerized by Chrysa Parkinson narrating her performances of “broken quotations” and “glitches” from a piece by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. When I visited again later, Parkinson was walking forwards and backwards while reading from a memoir of dance: “effort itself no longer guaranteed meaning”. Elsewhere, in a high-ceilinged gallery of midcentury sculpture, Asha Thomas was teaching people the Charleston and other jazz dances.
It was a bit like a music festival, with lots happening at the same time everywhere. The Turbine Hall, of course, was the biggest stage – during the afternoon there were three versions of Charmatz’s Levée des conflits. Later people started dancing to a rave with a DJ from ex-pirate radio station RinseFM, under the biggest glitter ball I have ever seen, specially lowered for the occasion.
Also hanging over all these goings-on at various heights throughout the day, however, was a serious debate about the identity and future of the museum. A space had been set aside for discussion and think-tanking within the context of expo zéro, an “exhibition without objects” which featured the likes of Claire Bishop, Tim Etchells, David Riff, as well as various performers and artists. I mostly watched the dancers though, even if there were questions at the back of my mind: about how purism of all stripes is out in an age of the dissolution of boundaries; about the spillage of dance into the museum, of the museum into public space; about silent contemplation giving way to embodied experience; about the still-fresh freedom (and the price) of interdisciplinarity; and about the power of these performing bodies in shifting the nature of the museum space.
In many ways it worked, really very well. If headcounts are your thing, 55,000 people apparently came over two days. It was a high point of democratic, participatory art, and much of it wasn’t even dumbed-down. Besides, it’s hard to object to a dance party.
If all this sounds a bit punchdrunk-interactive, it was. If it sounds populist, it was. If it sounds paradigmatic of “neoliberal” event-culture, then yes, it was.
It was a pop-up event, a symptom of the sharing economy, sometimes a kind of icky flash mob. But resistance isn’t always the best strategy. The last piece performed in the Turbine Hall on both days, a 2014 dance titled Manger (i.e. French for eating, rather than away in a...), was especially powerful. Among standing and sitting visitors, dancers occupied dispersed “islands”. The piece began with their eating sheets and sheets of (rice) paper, continually taking fresh ones from the concrete floor. The dancer I was sitting closest to, choreographer Maud Le Pladec, made convincing choking movements, spitting out big wet globs of half-chewed paper before taking a fresh sheet or putting the wet ball back into her mouth. Like the others, largely invisible but not inaudible behind walls of viewers, she danced, shouted, twitched, convulsed, and sang with her mouth full. At one point dancers squirmed through the visitors to agglomerate into a pile of violently shouting bodies. The metaphors of ingestion/consumption/surfeit – and also the moments of pain and release – were physical, engaging, intimate, heartrending, surprising, and, frequently, devastating. (I haven’t been so close to tears at an art event for a long time, though it is hard to say without a sense of impropriety, either for its boastfulness or its shamefulness. But hey. I only nearly cried!)
But. An American friend said she fell entirely out of the work’s spell when a dancer shouted out a poem (it turns out, a 1983 song by Daniel Johnston) retelling the story of King Kong without taking into account the inevitable racial tinging of this film’s plot. I shared her distrust of Europeans’ misuse and misunderstanding of American racial politics, but I wasn’t sure if the piece was as oblivious as she thought.
Later, back at home, I leafed through the May Artforum, where an exchange on David Joselit’s response to the Eric Garner killing was illustrated with a picture of William Pope.L’s work Eating the Wall Street Journal (street version), 1991, in which he sits on an American flag ingesting pieces of the newspaper with milk and ketchup and then vomiting it out. I then worried that I had been sucked into the “lite” version of this powerful gesture and its reflection of American inequities, banalized into a metaphor for consumption in general. Rice paper ≠ Wall Street Journal. But no, the intensity I had felt standing so close to the dancers and the movements of voices and bodies through the crowd was not cancelled out by this (accidental?) echo.
But/still, it is worth bearing in mind that the democratization of elitist cultural institutions as has happened at Tate is in some ways also a very specific British story, tailor-made for the class issues of the UK.
With free entry and something-for-everyone, Tate Modern overcompensates for the inequities that plague life in London, just as Berlin’s Berghain overcompensates for the sense of existential isolation that characterizes the city.
The mechanisms of such global-brand institutions – as semi-public space to explore, define, and challenge shared values – also operate on a psychogeographical level, which bodes for interesting times when, in a couple of years’ time, Charmatz joins Dercon’s team at the Volksbühne. Would the same thing work in Berlin?
At the end of Manger, the dancer I had been watching gave me a bit of rice paper. I was surprised to feel a bit like a priest as I broke it in two and offered half to my American friend. She declined. I ate it. It didn’t taste of much, but it had some grit in it, dragged in from the street by some visitor, to end up first in the museum and then in my mouth.