I’ve recently emerged from a long and lost weekend taking part in a project at the Musée de la Danse in Rennes. Organised by the charismatic choreographer Boris Charmatz, Expo Zéro arose from a week-long thinktank gathering an unruly combination of dancers, theorists, performers, art curators, architects and archivists to think about what you might find in a museum of dance or, perhaps better yet, a dancing museum. The result was an exhibition-cum-performance over two days in which visitors walked, ran and wandered through the studios, backstage areas and meeting rooms of Charmatz’s space.
The rules for Expo Zéro were simple: there would be no exhibition as such, no objects or costumes, scores or scripts, videos or photographs. There wouldn’t even be furniture. Instead, visitors would navigate the museum to find the participants adrift in the space, shifting from improvised interactions with each other and the public. They would also discover ad-hoc lectures, performance experiments and long conversations about the ephemeral nature of performance, techniques of improvisation and the history of museums.
For participants, I can say for sure that it was an exhausting, slightly delirious and rather wonderfully fluid space for thinking and doing. For my part, I sat at the door of a pathetic little space adjoining a large dance studio, claiming, to anyone lost enough to find me there, that within it lay a “special exhibition” containing two significant things. Inside this space – empty, of course – I would take my visitors one by one and describe a dance or movement from memory, drawing not so much on performances I’ve seen or done but on movements I might have seen or made in everyday life. The thrash of a mosh pit in 1978 and the dance of my son at a wedding party in 1999 were both dredged up to form part of a partial, spoken and entirely personal history of dance. My story finished, I’d ask each of my visitors to complete the display by describing a movement from their own lives.
It made for fascinating stories. There was the tale about a weekly dance session put on by 20 Parisian friends in their 70s and 80s. There was a Zimbabwean toyi-toyi, performed by my visitor alongside thousands of others during anti-apartheid protests in South Africa. I heard about the slow, balanced movements of four friends who walked carefully on top of a wall in Lisbon one summer. There was a dance of falling paper; a dance of rain; a dance of hands on a kitchen table.
It’s hard to choose a favourite, but perhaps what stays with me the most now are the handful of occasions where my visitors chose, in this small space lit only by an exit sign, to actually dance something for me. By the close of the weekend, I felt that my understanding of memory had been subtly reconfigured – retuned to appreciate a greater awareness of movement, not just in its vividness and urgency as performance, but to its presence in the stories and complexities of daily life