Do not disturb: Following an incidental gesture in Danse de Nuit by Boris Charmatz / Netta Weiser

translated by: Margalit Rodgers

Reflections following an incidental gesture that occurred during a performance of Danse de Nuit, about the implications of a physical gesture in the public space, about the boundaries of participation in an immersive performance, and about the artistic gesture.

Danse de Nuit (2016) is a work by French choreographer Boris Charmatz performed in urban spaces by six dancers, three lighting technicians, and the audience. During the performance the spectators move through the space and constitute an inseparable part of the choreography; the dancers move among and with the audience, crawl between the spectators’ legs, move them out of their way and use their bodies to create various choreographic structures. The dancers’ movements are tight and jittery and become increasingly more intense throughout the performance. Simultaneously with their movement, the dancers perform dense texts composed of quotes from different contexts, such as excerpts from rap musician Eminem’s songs, a Bruce Nauman artwork, or interviews from French radio about the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. Like the movement, the text is performed fast and intensely; fragments of sentences come apart between the dancers as the language blends into an unintelligible flow of speech. Along with this polyphonic quality, the dancers come together from time to time, speaking in unison which is reminiscent of slogans called out during political demonstrations.

The Holland Festival 2017 program and the artist’s website state that the performance was created in response to the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, and through it the artist seeks to reclaim public spaces, propose different ways for collective presence in them, and to simulate a political demonstration. Seemingly, holding the performance in the city square, which historically and culturally functions as a space of civic participation, community assembly and democratic action, supports these intentions, as well as the blurring of boundaries between spectators and participants, and including the audience as part of the choreographic score. However, one incidental moment that occurred during the performance I saw in Amsterdam in June 2017 raised questions concerning the premises of this artwork and unfolded different meanings encapsulated within it.

Disrupting the disruption

In the initial stage of the performance the dancers gathered in front of the audience and muttered incomprehensible text at increasing speed, when suddenly a woman from the audience joined them and began muttering her own text. For a moment it was unclear if she was a performer, but when one of the dancers tried to lead her out of the space in which the dancers were gathered it became evident that the woman was a spectator who took the invitation to participate a step too far, which the dancers perceived as a disruption. After failed attempts to remove the woman from the “stage”, the dancers started quoting text from Bruce Nauman’s piece Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room. The text spread among the performers and was shouted in different variations, such as “Get out of my way, Get out of this space…” Thus, coincidentally, Nauman’s words became a personal, operative address directed at the woman (I shall expand on this later). Finally, one of the dancers grabbed the woman by the arm and led her out of the space the dancers were occupying, and the performance “continued as usual”.

Participatory art + public space =  ?

As an immersive dance performance based on blurring the boundaries between spectatorship and participation, the performance deliberately creates potential moments for audience engagement and liminal situations in which spectators and performers cannot be distinguished. As part of Jacques Rancière’s writing about the relationship between politics and aesthetics[1], he refers in his article “The Emancipated Spectator” to theatrical models (which he terms “hypertheatre”) which claim to be political since they employ practices that challenge the distinction between spectators and actors by different means. Rancière notes practices such as abolishing the separation between stage and auditorium, transferring the performance site away from the theater, identifying the performance with taking possession of the street, or blurring the boundaries between art and life, and insists that employing such practices does not ensure the performance a political or emancipating dimension. According to him, many contemporary performances employ practices of crossing borders and blurring the distribution of roles “merely as a means of increasing the power of the performance without questioning its grounds”, and in fact preserve underlying binary and hierarchical presuppositions.

In that moment of the woman’s participation/disruption it seems that Charmatz’s performance, which claims to constitute a disruption in the public space, to deal with political issues, and challenge the boundary between spectators and participants, fell into the very trap indicated by Rancière. The unequivocal manner in which the performers reacted to the woman’s gesture as a disruption and led to her exclusion from the space, formed a clear boundary and hierarchy between “expert” performers and “ignorant” spectators who are invited to participate, but only under certain conditions.

Additional dimensions are encapsulated in this moment. First, it seems that the woman was mentally ill, which accords additional meaning to her exclusion from the “stage”, especially since it was not an actual stage but a public space. In other words, the woman’s gesture acted with regard to the performance as an immersive performance based on audience participation, but also as a performance held in the public space, and in this context her action underscored problematic aspects inherent in the very choice of site for the performance.

Charmatz makes a point of holding this performance in peripheral urban spaces, in “dangerous” areas of the city. For example, the performance I saw took place in Anton de Komplein located in the Bijlmermeer neighborhood in South-East Amsterdam, known for its population of foreigners, and which has been undergoing significant gentrification processes in recent years. In various interviews Charmatz stresses that by holding the performance in these locations he is seeking to “reclaim the public space” which in the present reality in Europe, according to him, has become a space of danger and fear of terrorism.[2] In light of declarations of this kind along with the act of excluding the woman from the performance space, which is also a public space, the question arises: when Charmatz and his dancers come to perform in the city’s “bad” areas, from whom are they seeking to reclaim the space? Is it from the state and the capitalist corporations that have taken over the public space? Or is it from asylum seekers, migrant workers, or “crazy” people whose presence in the streets threatens European homogeneity?

Does holding the performance in the city’s disadvantaged areas constitute a demonstration of transgressive physical presence that undermines the bourgeois policing of body, or does the gathering of artists and art consumers from the city center on its outskirts constitute temporary gentrification? Charmatz seeks to assimilate the audience as part of the choreographic action and thus to propose new possibilities of collective presence in the public space; however, for one moment it seemed that instead of creating common liminal spaces, he actually indicated the disjunctions: who is included in the collective performing itself? And who is not? Under what circumstances? Which public has the right to the public space?

Tribute to Nauman

Coincidentally, the moment of disruption/participation occurred against the background of Bruce Nauman’s words taken from his piece Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room (1968). In the late1960s and early 70s, Nauman produced a series of hybrid sculptural installations that assertively engage with and operate on the beholder’s body, senses, and mind. In Get Out the spectators entered a small empty room from which the artist’s voice was heard repeating the words of the title in different ways, whispered, shouted, and in varying intensity. The loudspeakers were concealed behind the walls of the room, thus the source of the voice remained unknown.

Art historian Janet Kraynak articulately describes the powerful and paradoxical effect this work has on the spectator who is invited into the room and at the same time ordered to leave it. According to her, the direct address to the spectator brought by the artist’s disembodied voice creates tension between the notion that the voice seems to talk to her and affects her at that moment, and the multitude of potential addressees.[3] In other words, the work is based on the apparent tension between the personal and impersonal, between the real and the virtual.

The potential inherent in addressing the spectator in Nauman’s work collapsed when it was quoted in Charmatz’s performance. In the participation/disruption situation in Charmatz’s performance – when Nauman’s disembodied words were embodied by six dancers and directed towards a specific addressee – operative use was made of them. Moreover, quoting Nauman’s work at that moment brought to the surface his approach to participatory art, which Kraynak describes as being driven by the desire to entail reciprocal involvement on the part of the viewer and concomitantly restrict and control that very participation.[4] In other words, in Nauman’s works participation does not serve as an allegory for agency and emancipation, but rather as a critique on controlling obedient spectators.

It seems that the woman’s gesture which for a moment disrupted the continuity of the performance and stretched the boundaries of participating in it in a way that provoked a counter-reaction among the dancers, leading them to set borders and regressing to policing modes of action. Moreover, the gesture set in motion a series of unpredictable disruptions and meanings that challenged the political meaning Charmatz’s performance sought to acquire, and with Nauman’s words in the background even brought to the surface his approach towards the power relations between artist and audience as though from the performance’s unconscious.



[1] See for example: Rancière, Jacques (2004). The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London: Continuum.

[2] See for example an interview for The Guardian in May 2016 in which the performance is discussed as an artistic act of “war on terror”:

[3] Kraynak, Janet (Ed.) (2003). Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1-45.

[4] Kraynak, Janet (2003). Dependent Participation: Bruce Nauman’s Environments. Grey Room 10, 26.