Boris Charmatz / Musee de la Danse
London, Sadler’s Wells
19 May, 2015
French dance provocateur Boris Charmatz has been turning perceptions of his art form on their heads with a Tate Modern takeover; the UK premiere of manger (as in the French for “to eat”) is part of a complementary series of shows at Sadler’s Wells and is in much the same vein. With the audience seated on stage, surrounding the performance space on three sides, and nothing more than strip lighting above us for a set, it’s already an odd experience. Then 14 dancers in a rag-tag of slouchy outfits saunter on, find a space, and proceed during the course of an hour to each munch their way through a stack of A4 sheets of rice paper.
A sedate beginning sees them adopt different strategies, some nibbling, some tearing strips, some stuffing a whole sheet in their mouth at once. The only noise is the crackling of their unusual foodstuff and ruminative chewing; then through mouthfuls of mush they start an acapella choral chant, which morphs into grunting, gagging noises as they twist their bodies towards the floor. In the outbreak of writhing that follows, one dancer tries to swallow her shoe-clad foot, another licks her breasts, another sucks his toe, all accompanied by increasingly unbridled sexual sounds and much rubbing, rocking and thrusting.
And so manger continues, with dancers in turn cueing up a shift in tempo with a noise, a song, or a spoken word passage that the others pick up on, their musical choices ranging from Beethoven and Ligeti to The Kills and Aesop Rock. And all the while they’re munching through that wholly unappetising-looking paper, until they’re reduced to picking confetti-like scraps off the floor. (Brace yourself for an extended sequence where the performers find new and inventive ways to regurgitate their half-chewed mouthfuls and then consume them again.)
What, you may wonder, is the point of it all? The programme notes, with their gnomic whiff of Euro-ponce, aren’t that enlightening. But as you watch this strange carnival unfurl, fluctuating from full-on horizontal party to rage-fuelled tanglings to serene contemplation, you start to see why Charmatz has taken on the challenge of, as he puts it, using the mouth to set bodies in motion. There’s a certain fascination in realizing how distinct noises set up physical reactions both in the person making them and often in those hearing them. A moan of pleasure, a rallying cry, a wail of grief, all have bodily manifestations – though you could argue this has more to do with “ecouter” than “manger”. It’s also interesting to see just which of their own body parts each dancer can fit their mouths round. Whether this is enough to sustain an hour-long show, though, is arguable – the distinctly odd charms of manger are shackled to a rather dry approach and Charmatz doesn’t really progress his idea, leaving you feeling you’ve watched a sizeable serving of self-indulgence.