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A French Choreographer Who Plays With the DNA of Dance

Mr. Charmatz said the idea for “10000 Gestures” came to him while watching one of his own pieces, “Levée des Conflits Extended,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2013. “The idea of “Levée” was that it was based on limited gestures, so you were constantly circling through the sequence, like a living sculpture changing shape,” he said. “I thought, what if you flip that, and have a piece where none of the dancers ever repeat a gesture or do the same one as anyone else?”

How do you create 10,000 completely different gestures? Over many, many hours working in a group on various themes, Mr. Charmatz explained. The themes included: “doing nothing,” microscopic movements (raising an eyebrow, flicking fingers), violence, eroticism, dance history, obscenity, and politics — a “Brexit means Brexit” gesture made by Theresa May is even in there.

“Each person has a different idea about what an erotic or a violent gesture might be,” Mr. Charmatz said, “so you get 25 variations on these ideas all happening together.”


The premise of “10000 Gestures” is that no move is ever repeated and that every dancer’s sequence is unique.

Duncan Elliott for The New York Times

All the themes come in a specific order and last for a predetermined amount of time, he explained, although the number of dancers onstage and the groupings they create vary constantly. When it was pointed out that structuring the work through changing configurations might verge on good choreography, he laughed. “Of course I want it to be compelling to watch,” he said. “I’m bringing all my skills, even the ones I don’t have, to this piece.”

A major name in the European contemporary dance world, Mr. Charmatz has never followed a traditional path. He made his name when still quite young: In 1993, at 19, he choreographed “À Bras le Corps” with Dimitri Chamblas, a friend from the Conservatoire de Lyon, where both had trained after defecting from the Paris Opera Ballet school to pursue a more contemporary dance orientation. The simplicity, physicality and direct attack of “À Bras le Corps,” performed in a boxing ring with spectators seated on all sides, was a salutary shock in the highly theatricalized world of 1990s French dance.

Mr. Charmatz continued on an iconoclastic path. He did not form his own ensemble or accept commissions for companies. He danced with various troupes and collaborated with fellow choreographers while creating relatively few pieces, which were often more like installation works than conventional dance performances. From 2002 to 2004, he ran a nomadic school for 15 students; he has written a book about contemporary dance and is a co-author of two others.

When he was appointed, in 2009, to lead the National Choreographic Center in Rennes, his first decision was to change its name to the Musée de la Danse. Unlike most of the choreographers who head regional centers in France, Mr. Charmatz has no permanent company, and works on a project-to-project basis. (His term in Rennes ends in 2018.)


Mr. Charmatz, standing, gives direction as the dancers prepare to rehearse his piece “10,000 Gestures.”

Duncan Elliott for The New York Times

“Boris brings movement and ideas together in space in extraordinary ways,” said John McGrath, the director of the Manchester International Festival, who added that he was keen to make dance an increasingly important part of the biennial event. “How do ideas manifest in art? The ambition of this work, the largest he has ever made, and the ambition of the idea felt like something we could really embrace.”

The experience of creating “10000 Gestures” has been grueling but exhilarating, said Mr. Chamblas, who still dances “À Bras le Corps” with Mr. Charmatz and is performing in “10000 Gestures.” “It is all entirely fixed choreographically, and you have to be very precise, and switch from one parameter to another extremely fast,” he said.

He gave a quick run-down: “At the beginning of the piece are the gestures of doing nothing, but very fast, 25 of them; then 15 movements going backwards, then 55 ‘crazy’ movements, then five rest positions. All of that is about a minute.”

Mr. Charmatz said that an important early decision was to perform almost everything at high speed. “What’s interesting is to create a storm, like snowflakes coming at you in the light,” he said. “It’s as if we keep running, the piece will hold together. Or like the idea that when you are dying, your life flashes before you. It plays also with the idea, which people are always saying, that dance is ephemeral, that no two moments are ever the same.”

The underlying idea of death, he added, felt important, and also the idea of being fully present. Referring to the recent suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert, he said: “We are in Manchester, with everything that happened here, so I have used Mozart’s Requiem in the piece. And not to be too political, but it’s easy to feel, especially in France, like you can’t move for problems — migrants, unemployment, Brexit. In some ways this is also about moving on. Every moment says ‘now.’”

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