Imagination made visible: Boris Charmatz’ Somnole

Taipei Performing Arts Center
March 14, 2023

One man. One light. A bare stage. In a way it’s as minimalist as it sounds. But in another, anything but, for Boris Charmatz’ Somnole is an hour where ideas and invention bubble forth.

Charmatz, who in September 2022 took over the directorship of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch (frighteningly, it’s now 14 years since she passed away), says that he loves the idea that choreographic inspiration so often comes when you are lying down, falling asleep, when you’re in that somnolent place somewhere between sleep and full consciousness.

It’s also a state where the mind tends to flip around. Sure enough, in Somnole, while its work, his imagination, becomes visible through the conduit of his body, moments, thoughts and ideas, they often seen unconnected other than that they follow one another in time.

Boris Charmatz in Somnole
Photo Paul Chao/TPAC

It opens with an empty stage. A distant whistling could be the wind. Or night birds calling, perhaps.

When the tall and muscular Charmatz appears, dressed in just in designer Marion Regnier’s pleated skirt made of strips of differently patterned material, we discover the sound is being made by him. And he continues to whistle as he dances, sometimes tunelessly, but then the ear picks up snatches of something familiar. Was that Bach, Vivaldi, Henry Mancini’s The Pink Panther, a Ennio Morricone western? That he keeps it up for the whole piece is remarkable.

It’s not just his breath that becomes a music instrument, sometimes it feels like the whole body is, so closely aligned are movement and sound. But the bond between sound and dance is fragile, the two frequently and unexpectedly drifting apart, the relationship becoming uncertain.

There are times when Charmatz almost collapses with exhaustion, but if there’s one thing Somnole doesn’t have, it’s a sleepy feel. He plays like a child might. With free abandon. Really letting go. It looks like someone toying with ideas. Bursts of energy come in jumps, turns, runs, a forward roll, a backward roll.

Although almost always free and loose, the movement does vary in dynamic and texture. There are changes in tempo. There are quieter interludes.

Boris Charmatz in Somnole
Photo Marc Domage

Some moments feel more conscious that others, but none are lingered on for too long. His whistling a delightfully jazzed-up version of ‘Summertime’ that seems to increase in speed is met with a cheerily playful walking sequence that unexpectedly ends with him standing on his head. Why? Well, why not? Soon after, ‘Stormy Weather’ is the cue for a brilliantly frantic tap dance.

There’s a lot of gesture, although meaning is generally vague. One dramatic moment sees him unexpectedly anguished as he writhes on the floor, fighting as if tangled in a web, from which he cannot escape. The complicated, impossible mesh that are his thoughts, perhaps.

As the mind continues to spew forth ideas, there’s body percussion before he picks out a member of the audience and leaves the stage to dance with them, having previously seemingly serenaded them. Whistling, of course. He also conducts the audience in a mass whistle. Not all that successfully on this occasion.

It is all superbly lit by Yves Godin, whose single overhead spotlight sometimes highlights Charmatz, somehow picking out the most minute of detail as it zeros in on his body, or bathes the stage in murky light.

Eventually, he disappears the way he came, his whistling, slowly fading away as that light now bathes the audience. For a moment, silence.

Somnole is unusual. Some will find it a challenge. Even I will admit to my mind drifting elsewhere at one point. Peculiar, odd, for sure. But also, strangely and unexpectedly engaging.