Boris Charmatz/Musee de la danse
danse de nuit
London, Multi-storey car park, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
17 May 2017
The programme states: “danse de nuit takes place in a car park. Rain or shine, they dance.” For the UK premiere of the latest piece by the provocative French choreographer Boris Charmatz, that first part is scuppered: it’s raining so much that the dance takes place not on the exposed top level of the multi-storey car park in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, but in the covered concrete area opposite, outside the Here East technology complex. It’s still a pretty bleak, blasted urban setting for this hour-long promenade piece, intended to confront how frightening public spaces seem to have become in light of the recent random terror attacks in European cities.
Charmatz and six other dancers from his Musee de la danse project start circling among us, lit occasionally by wandering black-clad extras with neon light boards strapped to them. They talk ceaselessly, starting with freewheeling anecdotes before they all start reciting a shattered script together. The Charlie Hebdo attacks are referenced more than once (including a verbatim recitation of the account of a witness to the immediate aftermath); the body language of repetitive jerks and dancers throwing themselves to the ground gives a heightened sense of agitation.
The whirling speech is often hard to decipher – the dancers are always in motion, their words thrown at whoever is nearest, the acoustics are terrible, and their French accents are very heavy. But their fractured declamations segue into blasphemy (Salman Rushdie is mentioned), issues of identity and personal freedom, and celebrity. With the latter, a wacky sense of humour takes over – one dancer recites a litany of random actors and singers imagined in bizarre scenarios (“Britney Spears in a McDonald’s uniform”; “Christopher Plummer in the depths of despair”; “Morgan Freeman playing Doom, level five”).
Violence permeates the piece, whether it’s the dancers pushing past milling audience members yelling “Move” as they rush to another area, or making shooting gestures, or shadow boxing. One dancer’s frenzied solo makes it look as though she is fighting her own body. Another is dragged by her hair as a third dancer keeps a hand on her crotch.
Charmatz’s vision seems to be of a kind of physical graffiti, scrawled across the urban space – a cacophony of ideas flung into the crowd. Maybe to emphasise this, dancers crouch to mime writing on the concrete, and at one point chant the lyrics to Eminem’s Lose Yourself for added hip-hop grit. But as you are jostled around in the damp and the wind, trying to piece together this disjointed, discombobulating experience, it sometimes feels as if you’re at a sort of 1960s “happening” where everyone else’s acid tab worked except yours. It would be lovely to reclaim our public spaces through dance, but the brutalist imperative of danse de nuit feels more alienating than inviting.