Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 8, 2016
Boris Charmatz: If Tate Modern was Musée de la danse? Tate Modern.
Exhibition schedule: Tate Modern, London, May 15–16, 2015
Boris Charmatz. Levée des conflits (2015). Photograph by Tamara Tomic-Vajagic.

[See the multimedia version on Scalar.]

Introduction: “If were”

This jointly authored review of Boris Charmatz’s If Tate Modern Was Musée de la Danse? (2015) inaugurates a new initiative, spearheaded by the editorial board of, to review time-based media. The increasing prominence of dance, performance, video, film, and sound works in museum and gallery exhibitions gives an opportunity not simply to broaden the journal’s scope, but also to bring a range of diverse perspectives to bear on this growing phenomenon. By inviting scholars of dance to write this review, we hope to show how can become a forum for interdisciplinary dialogue on artworks and institutions of interest to members of distinct but related scholarly and creative communities. In the spirit of Charmatz, we ask, “what if were”

If Tate Modern Was Musée de la Danse?—a festival-cum-artwork held at the Tate Modern, London, on May 15–16, 2015—arguably provides the perfect entry point into this new series of reviews. As the Tate’s introductory text for this complex piece suggests, its titular question reframes the Tate Modern, “proposing a fictional transformation of the art museum via the prism of dance.” Charmatz—who is both a choreographer and director of the Musée de la danse in Rennes, France—answered his own question with a variety of dance-related activities. If Tate Modern Was Musée de la Danse? included solo and ensemble dances, participatory pieces and ones performed for an audience, with some of these events overlapping or occurring simultaneously. Charmatz’s “main stage” was the Tate’s Turbine Hall [LINK to Stanger], the vast, hangar-like space on the museum’s lower level, which since 2000 has been the site for the Unilever Series, an annual commission for a site-specific work. However, Charmatz did not limit his intervention to the Turbine Hall. Events also took place in the Tate’s exhibition and collections galleries, and were broadcast via live stream.

The eight-hour continuous program in the Turbine Hall began with an hour-and-a half “public warm-up,” directed by Charmatz. A series of works choreographed by Charmatz then followed. The program began with reprises of two of Charmatz’s earlier works: the duet À bras-le-corps (To Seize Bodily) (1993), performed by Charmatz and Dmitri Chamblas, followed by three separate but related performances of Levée des conflits (Suspension of Conflict) (2010), first as a solo, then as a participatory work (led by Charmatz), and finally as an ensemble piece. Charmatz also presented Roman Photo, a piece based on his Flip Book (2009), which incorporated volunteers from the audience, and a “dispersed version” of manger (Eating) (2014), which he also presented at Sadlers Wells Theatre on May 19–20, along with a full program of concert dance. Interspersed between these staged choreographic works, Charmatz programmed two free-form events entitled Adrénaline: A Dance Floor for Everyone [LINK to Tomic-Vajagic], in which an enormous disco ball transformed the Turbine Hall into a dance party.

Meanwhile, the upper-floor galleries hosted continuous performances of two other works. On levels 2, 3, and 4, viewers would find Charmatz’s 20 Dancers for the XX Century [LINK to Zee], “a living archive of the last 100 years of dance.” At different times and in different places, twenty dancers performed a selection of twentieth-century dances. Some were drawn from the Euro-American canon (by choreographers including Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, Ted Shawn, and Alvin Ailey). Others (solos by Germaine Acogny and Tatsuki Hijikata, Irish step dance, riffs on Charlie Chaplin) threw that canon into relief. A related piece, expo zéro, was, according to the Tate Modern website, a performance/teach-in, “an exhibition project without any objects” in which ten “guide-artists” from a variety of backgrounds “discuss, enact and perform their ideas of what a museum of dance could be.”

While this brief summary of the components of If Tate Modern Was Musée de la Danse? may seem extensive and confusing, it likely will sound familiar to readers who know Charmatz’s previous work. Trained in the elite ranks of the Paris Opéra Ballet, Charmatz founded the “association edna” in 1992 with Chamblas, and it was also with Chamblas that Charmatz began choreographing his own work (À bras-le-corps was their first work, and so it arguably counted as the twenty-first dance of the twentieth century in If Tate Modern Was Musée de la Danse?). Though Charmatz originated as a ballet dancer, he employs an emphatically non-balletic technique in his choreography. He draws primarily from postmodern dance styles that combine “ordinary” or everyday movements with more virtuosic or complex steps; his choreographies evoke the work of Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker (his duet with de Keersmaeker, Partita II (2013), was on the program at Sadler’s Wells).

Charmatz’s museum-related interventions began in 2009 when, upon assuming the directorship of the Centre chorégraphique national de Rennes et de Bretagne, he renamed the institution the Musée de la danse (“The Dancing Museum”). With this transformation, Charmatz aimed to question, and to reconceptualize, the institutional structures that frame viewers’ experiences of works of art—those which appear to be “fixed” (such as paintings or sculptures) as well as those (like dance) which seem more transitory. As Charmatz suggests in his “Manifesto for a Dancing Museum,” “We are at a time in history where a museum in no way excludes precarious movements, nor nomadic, ephemeral, instantaneous ones.” His belief is that the entry of dance into the literal and conceptual space of the museum can transform the latter, making it more provocative, transgressive, permeable, cooperative, and “incorporated” (that is, embodied). It is this spirit of utopian transformation and quasi-anarchic takeover that animates If Tate Modern Was Musée de la Danse?—and this review’s temporary “occupation” of

Juliet Bellow
Professor, Department of Art, American University