Culture & Conversation

The commitment was remarkable and the perspiration was copious

Do you remember singing Frere Jacques or Row Your Boat at school, when your teacher would make you sing it in rounds? First one group would start singing, then another group would join in the existing voices but sing the song from the beginning. The end result was a satisfying melange of notes and voices all over the place and yet all performing the same function. Levée des Conflits was the contemporary dance version of that.

Choreographed by Boris Charmatz, produced by Musée de la Danse – Centre Choreographique National de Rennes et de Bretagne and presented by Festival Transamerique at Place-des-Arts, the piece aimed to show all the parts of a choreography simultaneously. All 25 movement sequences are done at the same time by 24 different dancers – thus we begin with one solitary dancer performing on an empty stage. She begins with a methodical waxing-the-floor motion, moving into an enchanting bum-wiggle as a second dancer joins her onstage. Slowly but surely, dancers fill the stage and become a pulsating swarm. The movements came from Charmatz as well as the dancers, and I had fun conjuring names for each of them: the Swayze-Moore (so named after this famous scene), the Mental Patient Rock, the Beep Test, Helicopter Arms, the Trampoline Bounce, the Toddler Tantrum, the Chest Thwack, the Hip Hop Epi Fit.

I couldn’t stop my eye from darting all over the place, lingering on specific dancers (“I like the way Plaid Shirt Guy does the Floor Wax,” I remember thinking) but also zooming out to engage the company as a whole and witness their shifting dynamics as the music intensified and more dancers joined the fray. Eventually the dancers are concentrated into a seething cluster-cuss of limbs, drenched with sweat. It is captivating and hypnotic and conceptually the most interesting thing I have seen in a while.

As for the dancers, they were a diverse bunch – different ages, races, and shapes, and all wearing street clothes. Their absolute focus on this seemingly pointless endeavour made me think of a pack of glorious ants. There was almost no partnering in the entire piece, just 24 individual people fixated on their own mission and determined to finish it at any cost. The commitment was remarkable and the perspiration was copious.

Initially, Levée des Conflits was envisaged as a six-hour piece that the audience would come and witness like a museum exhibit, but that idea was soon scratched when Charmatz realised how physical Levée des Conflits would be. The soundscape was created with a similar layering intent as the dancing, and the result becomes a schizophrenic fiddling of a radio dial. It included sparse piano, heavy breathing and sound effects not unlike somebody hosing down their driveway. Sounds hideous, doesn’t it? But it actually worked.

There were a couple of points at which I was expecting the choreography to come to an end, the most logical of which being when all the dancers suddenly synchronized and began performing the full 25 movement sequences together, from start to finish. This was fascinating in that you could really see the shape of the choreography and how one movement would segue into another. But that would-be end point came and went. The dancers kept dancing, slowly picking themselves off one-by-one until, again, we were left with just a lone dancer executing his mission onstage. I was pretty mesmerized by this point so I didn’t mind too much, but I wondered, in hindsight, whether Levée des Conflits wasn’t just a smidge too long. At 90 minutes straight, it was a marathon for the dancers – that much was clear.

“The French word “levée” can mean either an end to conflict or a flareup of conflict,” says Charmatz. “That is the negotiation we are in, for there is a certain violence and relations between bodies are not always gentle.” Right you are, Mr Charmatz.

Levée des Conflits was at Place-des-Arts on May 30 & 31

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