Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 8, 2016
Boris Charmatz: If Tate Modern was Musée de la danse? Tate Modern.
Exhibition schedule: Tate Modern, London, May 15–16, 2015
Boris Charmatz. Levée des conflits (2015). Photograph by Tamara Tomic-Vajagic.

[See the multimedia version on Scalar.]

Museum Metaphysics: 20 Dancers for the XX Century and Dance’s Ontology in the Museum

As I walked through Tate Modern’s “Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky: Pop 1957–67” gallery on May 15, 2015, I encountered Frédéric Seguette removing T-shirt after T-shirt in a performance of Jerôme Bel’s Shirtology (1997). Seguette’s performance was part of Boris Charmatz’s 20 Dancers for the XX Century, a performative exhibition of selected moments in the history of twentieth-century dance; this work was previously staged at the Museum of Modern Art in 2013 and subsequently reincarnated at the Palais Garnier in Paris. The version of 20 Dancers for the XX Century in If Tate Modern Was Musée de la Danse? featured twenty dancers, each of whom represented different traditions, choreographers, and styles of dance, from the balletic tradition of George Balanchine to the contemporary street style of krumping. Dispersed throughout Tate Modern’s permanent collection galleries, the dancers, equipped with boomboxes, were free to choose the location, or “stage,” in which to perform their movement. Some, like Seguette, situated themselves in galleries, thus juxtaposing their piece of the twentieth century with the artistic styles surrounding them; others chose to perform in more apparently neutral or transitional spaces, such as hallways.

The excerpts of canonical danceworks presented in 20 Dancers for the XX Century were not exact executions of choreographic scores. Instead, they were performances of the dancers’ memories and experiences of those works; Marcella Lista describes these archival performances as “bodily articulation[s] of fragments of history, absorbed and metabolized through various moments of consciousness and temporality” (Marcella Lista, “Play Dead: Dance, Museums, and the ‘Time-Based Arts,’” Dance Research Journal 46, no. 3 [December 2014]: 6–23). As Charmatz himself has noted in lectures on this piece, he is not trying to achieve a faithfulness to the “original” choreography. Instead, his aim is to incorporate the dancers’ experiences of these works into the history of dance, and the history of dance into the museum (Boris Charmatz, “BMW Tate Live—Museums: The Artists’ Creation,” panel [May 12, 2015], Tate Modern). 20 Dancers for the XX Century shows thereby that choreographic works are not static. They are filtered through and impacted by dancers’ and viewers’ memories of other works and by the training and other bodily experiences that the dancers carry with them.

20 Dancers for the XX Century seeks to call into question preconceptions about the metaphysical status of dance, and challenges presumptions about the way in which dance might inhabit the museum or cohabitate with works of plastic art. The project uses the museum context to reimagine what dance might be. Charmatz’s approach—his acceptance of experience and memory as part of these twentieth-century dances, rather than strict adherence to set choreography—poses a challenge to the typical paradigm of dance presentation and performance. Dance is often theorized through a type-token framework: the type, or choreography, is an enduring dancework that can be re-performed, while dance is the token, the individual, fleeting performance of a type (see Graham McFee’s The Philosophical Aesthetics of Dance: Identity, Performance, and Understanding [Binsted, Hampshire, UK: Dance Books, 2011] for a detailed analysis of the type-token framework). With 20 Dancers for the XX Century, Charmatz blurs the line between type and token, merging the two into one experience through the memories of dancers and spectators.

20 Dancers for the XX Century liberates dance from the ephemerality of movement performance by framing it within memory, allowing dance to be experienced by and accessed through its traces. For example, former New York City Ballet dancer Antonia Franceschi performed excerpts from the Balanchine repertory in the “Realisms Room” of the Tate’s “Poetry and Dream” gallery. Before one segment, she spoke with visitors, sharing her memories of learning the work by describing what it was like to be in the rehearsal room and the importance of the movements’ relationship to the music in Balanchine works. The movements, words, and memories Franceschi shared functioned as the “outsides” of her experiences of the works she performed. These “outsides” and traces provided access to her intangible experience, allowing that experience to be displayed as an artifact (Franz Anton Cramer, “Experience as Artifact: Transformations of the Immaterial,” Dance Research Journal 46, no. 3 [December 2014]: 24–31).

By juxtaposing memory, speech, movement, performance, and history, Charmatz undermines dance’s ontology as transient motion and complicates the boundary between type and token. In 20 Dancers for the XX Century, a type becomes more than a choreographic work as it incorporates subjective, personal experiences; a token thereby expands beyond the moment of dance performance as dancers speak about and share other aspects of the work. This mode of presentation undercuts dance’s ontology as ephemeral and proposes alternate temporal and perceptual existences for it.

Nicole Zee
independent scholar