How Choreographer Boris Charmatz is Expanding the Dance Legacy of Pina Bausch

A weekend of dance performances in Paris marks an important milestone in the career of Boris Charmatz, recently appointed artistic director of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch.

It was 1979 when Pina Bausch showed her first piece at Paris’s Théâtre de la Ville – the subversive The Seven Deadly Sins, performed just five years after she created her dance company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. The success of the German choreographer and dancer’s pieces at this Parisian theatrical institution created an intimate and longstanding relationship that endures, even after Bausch’s death in 2009. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal holds a near-permanent residence at the theatre.

In what is perhaps the apogee of this Franco-German relationship, French choreographer Boris Charmatz was appointed director of the Tanztheater Wuppertal in 2022. The past two weeks of the Parisian dance calendar leave no doubt as to both the enduring relevance of Bausch’s repertoire, and of Charmatz’s place as one of today’s most important choreographers.

During “Place à la Dance,” a weekend of performances by Charmatz and the Tanztheater Wuppertal at Theatre de la Ville, the director’s daring 1996 piece Aatt enen tionon coincided with the current showing of Bausch’s Sweet Mambo

Pina Bausch by Rolf Borzik © Pina Bausch Foundation. Protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

Sweet Mambo, Bausch’s penultimate production before her death, was inspired by her travels to Chile. Viewers are subtly attuned to the location through costume and set design. A long yellow, brown and orange hued sheer dress worn by dancer Naomi Brito – from the archive of the late Marion Cito (a famed costume designer and long-time collaborator of Bausch) – moves as if caught in the wind of the Andes. The highlight of Peter Pabst’s timeless set design came as a white curtain blew up like a bubble while a dancer moved inside it, the whole scene reminiscent of a breezy cabana by twilight.

Sweet Mambo is anything but sweet, however. Bausch centres women in an unforgiving representation of the trials and tribulations of female self-actualisation, as couples become intertwined in insidious romances verging on violent. Along with impactful and often repetitive gestures, dancers implored the audience not to forget their names; original company dancer Julie Shanahan repeatedly threw herself against her partner screaming, “Let me go!” while a table held by two male dancers passed over her head, again and again.

In the foyer of the theatre, just moments after Sweet Mambo, three dancers performed Aatt enen tionon, one of Charmatz’s early creations. The performance began even before attendees filed into the building, as dancers moved about on their respective platforms of a three-levelled structure. Within 15 minutes, they’d removed their trousers, dancing in nothing but white T-shirts. Blaring rock music was replaced by the sound of the performers’ increasingly enraged movements as they threw their bodies on the wooden platforms. The call-and-response nature of the noise appeared to be the only form of communication between them. A confrontational exploration of how nudity affects our ability to read and comprehend a performance, the piece challenges viewers to break free of their own associations with nakedness.

Just across the road at the Theatre de Châtelet, Charmatz showed Liberté Cathédrale from April 7-18, his first piece as director of the Tanztheater Wuppertal (fitting, as Bausch’s own Paris debut also touched on religious themes). Originally staged in the brutalist church Neviges Mariendom of Germany, Liberté Cathédrales set transformed the theatre’s stage to resemble a church-hall. The effect of this was palpable: awe filled the room while attendees took their seats on and around a stage built on top of the auditorium’s stall seats. Part church, part colosseum, the oblong performance space allowed viewers to not only observe the performance, but also fellow attendees. This somewhat novel set up of the 19th century auditorium – doused as it was in a deep yellow light – was at once meditative and foreboding. Dancers soon flooded the space, gyrating, yelling, humming and gesticulating to the sound of organs and cathedral bells – a maddening crowd on a quest for expression, contact and freedom. On opening night, a real priest sat in the front row, cassock and all, watching intently as one dancer climbed up onto the first balcony sing-screaming “Fuck the Pain Away” by Peaches, while another crawled on the ground before him, acting in a way that could only be described as possessed.

One could be forgiven for believing there was no choreography at all, as each of the nearly 30 dancers moved and gesticulated in their own innate way. However, when viewed as an ensemble from above, the mastery of Charmatz’s understanding of space and movement becomes clear. There was an overall harmony in the extreme energy and chaotic randomness, as the crowd of dancers pushed and pulled across an invisible cruciform.

Many similarities can be drawn between Charmatz and Bausch. Both choreographers stage a humanity laid bare, stripped of the codes of the norm, erring between ecstasy and honesty, fragility and strength. Each piece can be seen as the clashing against or coming together of the dancers’ individual sensibilities, resulting in a unique chemistry.

“Place à la Dance” coinciding with Sweet Mambo put the two choreographers’ work in a more direct discussion, marking an important moment for not only Charmatz’s direction of the Tanztheater Wuppertal, but also for his own choreographic repertoire. The double feature celebrates Charmatz as a forceful choreographer in his own right. While Bausch’s theatrical and expressionistic pieces are moving and continue to hold great weight in their explorations of personal relationships, human fragility and loss, Charmatz has a liberated vision that not only takes Bausch’s repertoire to new contexts, but allows for a newfound extension of her ground-breaking work.

Sweet Mambo is now showing at the Theatre de la Ville in Paris until the 7th of May.

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