Back in 1970, choreographer Twyla Tharp, pregnant and happy, lay on a hillside, looked up at the sky, and had a vision: a dance that would “represent the entire universe… all the dense completeness of God’s creation”. The result was The One Hundreds: a hundred entirely distinct 11-second phrases of motion, divided first among two dancers, then five, and lastly among a hundred performers, so that the finale captured the multiplicity of her choreographic “universe” in a single 11-second rush.
I mention it here because Boris Charmatz’s 10000 Gestures, first created in 2017 and touring again this year, has a certain similarity of ambition, even of means. Instead of a hundred phrases, French choreographer Charmatz uses 10,000 “gestures” – perhaps more accurately, “actions” – ranging from balletic exercises to disco boogie, doggy walks to fish-out-of-water flops, copulation to parturition, eating to pissing, shrieks to whispers, punches to shivers, air guitar to zombie shuffles, dense crowds to spare scatterings, and all manner of walks, runs, jumps, rolls, falls, slides, twists and spins. A lot more, too. The space is wide and deep, and the 24 dancers never repeat the same action or duplicate each other’s moves. The effect is to suggest the fleeting presence and the teeming profusion of the world itself, not in an 11-second rush but cumulatively, over the course of an hour.
This could have become a surfeit of “stuff”, but just as Tharp found she needed a compositional device to marshall her material, so Charmatz imparts a level of legibility to his work, in two ways. The first (offered at Tate Modern, but not possible in all venues) is to present a series of solo extracts from the piece before the performance itself. This is just what Tharp did – show the material in strung-out form before plunging into its density – and it works well for Charmatz too. I caught three or four of these solos, and later found them providing welcome entry points into the piece itself. They also afforded time and space to appreciate some of the technical and performative virtuosity of the individual dancers as they flip from andante to allegro, formal correctness to expressionist abandon, reined-in control to flat-out freedom – details that are rather swamped by the group piece.
Charmatz also clarifies his chaos by arranging the material into loose types, so that you sense certain thematic clusters during the performance: moments where most people are running, an outbreak of gestures to do with sex and birth, a calming of the space as if by sudden consensus. The effect is to gather the profusion into broad waves of activity that you can ride, for a while, in between the inevitable inundations.
One such wave is a group “invasion” of the audience, the dancers piling up the aisles, clambering over spectators, and running amok as they keep breathless tally of their gestural progress (“7824, 7825, 7826…”). The scene is exhilarating, exasperating and irresponsible, often simultaneously (one audience member, whose sandal was removed and chucked into the distance, was later rebuked by an usher, whose head had nearly been hit). So: mixed feelings there.
There are mixed feelings too – though this ambivalence I approve of – about the work’s relation to God. Tharp, remember, had likened the universe to “God’s creation”, in her words at least, if not so much in her dance. Charmatz is more direct, and contrarian. His soundscore is Mozart’s Requiem – loud, often interrupted, always present and never respected. If the Requiem is a mass in its religious sense – a congregation of voices in communion with the sacred – then 10000 Gestures is mass of material where a kiss is no more meaningful than a kick, a multiple pirouette as valid as any old hop, skip or jump, and where everything is profane – including the sacred. Whether you take this as a cornucopia of earthly delights or a vision of hell itself rather depends on you; but all can agree that the vision is Boschian in its sweep and scope.
Wait till you see what’s next, though. Forget hundreds and thousands: Charmatz’s latest number is infinity. Recently premiered in France and Greece, his Infini is about reaching towards the limitless. Abandon counting, all ye who enter there.