Conflict Resolution

Claudia La Rocco on Boris Charmatz’s Levée des conflits extended at MoMA

Boris Charmatz, Levée des conflits extended (Suspension of Conflicts Extended), 2010. Performance view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 2013. Lénio Kaklea (center). Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

LAST YEAR, when MoMA launched its Some sweet day dance series curated by the choreographer Ralph Lemon, there was a lot of talk about the impossibility of the atrium space as a site for any art, let alone a body-based one, and about the fraught tensions between these two art-world cultures.

But, really, what were we all thinking?

That was my thought on Sunday afternoon, when I spent a little more than two hours watching Levée des conflits extended (Suspension of Conflicts Extended) by the French choreographer Boris Charmatz. The work, from 2010, comprises twenty-five gestures performed by twenty-four dancers, so that the full palette of movements is never realized all at one time. It was the second of three weekends in “Musée de la Danse: Three Collective Gestures,” the series, curated by Ana Janevski, that Charmatz and his Centre chorégraphique national de Rennes et de Bretagne are presenting with MoMA. It doesn’t get more blue-chip than this.

Nor does it get more crowd-pleasing. Forget all this talk of culture-clashes and failure: Dance is an absolute hit in the atrium. There are even social practice-y manifestos like this one from Charmatz claiming, “We are at a time in history where a museum can modify BOTH preconceived ideas about museums AND one’s ideas about dance.” Well, huh. Do we really think this is what’s happening, we who stand in line to plunk down our twenty dollars (or press passes) and then settle in to watch the lush physical noodlings of twenty-four beautifully trained and just downright beautiful (as in United Colors of Benetton beautiful) performers labor to materialize the vision of one celebrated European male author, smack in the middle of one of the most powerful art institutions in the world?

That sounds pretty cranky. And I admit (I admit!) I was in a bad mood when I arrived at the museum, for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the museum. But I actually had a grand time there, and left feeling absolutely lavished and comforted by the status quo, et al. The consolations of art. What’s not to love? I sat with my friend M. and mouthed off about all manner of things while dancers stopped, dropped, slid, and rolled over the big expanse of the atrium, their leggings ripping out over their knee-pads and their shirts darkened with ever-widening pools of sweat—here is the fraught encounter, between human flesh and punishingly-surfaced architecture. They worked hard for the money. (And how good was the money? One wonders, one always wonders.) Even having come expressly to see this work, I found it almost impossible to sustain anything akin to watching—and yet, wherever I looked, there was something beautiful begging for my attention. Emancipation for all. It was great.

“Was lovely seeing you at MoMA, the Atrium,” a fellow viewer emailed me after the event. “Yes, it is now an undeniable frame, a hovering tyranny. Still, I like how I can watch however I want to watch within the frame. Meekly empowered. I like Boris, the ‘prince of French dance,’ his exuberant (and privileged) generosity.”

And as the artist Ryan Kelly said at the private reception that followed, “There is a conservative impulse—almost a resistance, among some artists—to hold on to some of the values of the museum as a twentieth-century institution. It’s a reversal of the avant-garde’s historical position.”

It sounds even better when you imagine the champagne flutes we were holding. Plastic, but still.

Kelly was positing this “almost-resistance” as a potentially positive conservatism, something he is interested in, maybe even supportive of. Certainly you could make the case that Levée des conflits extended, with its insistence on the material concerns of dance (rather than narrative, identity politics, etc., though of course all of those things were there to be read, should one be so inclined), is a resolutely modern work of art, repackaged with contemporary trappings. In this sense, it’s the perfect work for MoMA, in the perfect place, at the perfect time. N’est ce pas? Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.

Flip Book, the third and final work presented in the series “Musée de la Danse: Three Collective Gestures,” is co-presented by Performa and will be performed November 1–3 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.