Review: Boris Charmatz Unveils a Different Tanztheater Wuppertal

Everyone needs an editor. Writers, directors, cooks, choreographers and designers all need a ruthless eye — internal or external — for their work to find its form; the sculpture within the block of stone. You might even define a great artist by the ability to pitilessly remove the inessential, no matter how clever the sentence or brilliant the movement composition.

There is plenty of fascinating movement in Boris Charmatz’s first new work, “Liberté Cathédrale,” for the Tanztheater Wuppertal in Germany, which opened on Friday night at the spectacular Mariendom church in Neviges, a 20-minute drive from Wuppertal. But the five-part piece is a capacious, messy, meandering grab-bag of ideas, inspirations and associations that haven’t benefited from uncompromising and focused decision-making.

Charmatz became the director of Tanztheater Wuppertal last September, its fifth leader since the sudden death of its founder, Pina Bausch, in 2009. The troupe, the region’s most prominent cultural institution, has struggled to find its identity since Bausch’s death; the Charmatz premiere, attended by a considerable number of politicians, journalists and programmers, has been presented by the company and the media as the start of a new era. (There are also plans for a Pina Bausch Center, a major new cultural building for the city.)

Charmatz is an ambitious and interesting choice for this company. A well-known choreographer, he has never formed his own troupe or accepted commissions from existing companies. His pieces have often been conceived for museums, public and unconventional spaces; he has collaborated with other choreographers and written books about dance.

In most ways, his work could hardly be further from Bausch’s very specific mix of potent, surreal dramatic vignettes and flowing, gestural dance, designed for a proscenium stage. But for both choreographers, dancers are individuals who are passionately themselves onstage, rather than choreographic instruments. And both are fond of breaking the fourth wall and establishing a relationship between audience and performers.

The company already looks very different. Only two of the 26 dancers in “Liberté Cathédrale,” Michael Strecker and Aida Vainieri, are from the Bausch era; the others, including seven guests (all regular Charmatz performers), are of a younger generation. The setting, inside Gottfried Böhm’s 1968 Brutalist concrete cathedral, is spectacular, a vast rectangle with a soaring, jagged concrete roof that looks like a Cubist sculpture.

“Liberté Cathédrale” begins with a rush of dancers into the space, singing wordlessly, then flinging themselves to the floor, writhing frantically. Maintaining a beautiful a cappella chant (the voice training is by Dalila Khatir) the dancers perform variations on that sequence, rushing, slowing, freezing in place, then crumpling slowly to the floor, before frenziedly lashing, squirming and bouncing there.

The performance begins with a rush of dancers into the church, singing wordlessly, then flinging themselves to the floor.Credit…Uwe Stratmann

The next four sections are each characterized by a specific sound, or its absence. In Part 2, bells chime incessantly and cacophonously as the dancers bunch and scatter with convulsive, shaking motions, dropping suddenly to the floor, gesturing toward the audience with opaque meaning, tussling together with close-bodied intensity.

In Part 3, they move in silence, mouths stretched wide open and heads tilted back, circling the church’s pulpit on their knees, miming or silently mouthing something to the audience. They might be refugees, with no language to offer their stories, or perhaps silenced victims of abuse.

Until this point, Charmatz maintains a certain amount of dramatic tension, despite longueurs. But in the fourth section, the dancers start to talk to audience members, then pull some into the performance space to form a circle in the near-dark. Nothing much happens for a long time, as performers circle around the periphery of the space and push through the audience, declaiming various non sequiturs, lines of poetry (“No man is an island”) and abrasive song (“What else is in the Teaches of Peaches? Like sex on the beaches”), or writhe wildly close by.

Here, it was striking to note the difference between the kind of amused complicity that Bausch evokes when her dancers address people in the audience, and the frequently aggressive, confrontational nature of the actions in “Liberté Cathédrale.”

The final section, dominated by a huge, layered, swelling organ sound (played by Phill Niblock) was strongest, with a tight-knit group pushing and pulling closely against one another like a single struggling organism. Sometimes dancers are slung across shoulders, sometimes balanced on backs in images evoking war, death, refugee migrations. Eventually they are carried or dragged away, until just one woman remains, balancing precariously on one leg as sound and lights are suddenly extinguished.

The dancers do an extraordinary job with the demanding material, and Charmatz has clearly given them freedom to explore physical ideas and push themselves to extremes. But he hasn’t mastered the outcome as he did in an earlier work, the much tighter “10,000 Gestures,” which featured similarly controlled chaos of a large group of dancers on individual and intersecting tracks.

“Liberté Cathédrale” will tour, but it’s hard to imagine it will have the same impact without the extraordinary soaring space of Mariendom. Ultimately, it’s much closer to the site-specific installations that Charmatz has created over his career than to the theatrical pieces that made Tanztheater Wuppertal famous. Will he bridge the gap? Establish a new aesthetic? “Liberté Cathédrale” doesn’t tell us yet.

Liberté Cathédrale

Through Saturday at the Mariendom Church in Neviges, Germany.

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