A Story of Two People

Interview with Dimitri Chamblas and Boris Charmatz

A Story of Two People

An atypical piece, À bras-le-corps by Dimitri Chamblas and Boris Charmatz, is on the programme at the Rotonde du Glacier of the Palais Garnier. An off-beat duet that the two dancer-choreographers have entrusted to two of the Étoiles of the Paris Opera: Karl Paquette and Stéphane Bullion. Encounter.

You created À bras-le-corps in 1993. Since then, you have revived this duo regularly. How has it evolved over the years?

Boris Charmatz: When Dimitri and I created À bras-le-corps, we were seventeen and nineteen years old respectively and had just finished our studies. One can therefore see the piece as a somewhat naïve gesture with certain qualities but also containing the mistakes of youth. Very soon after its first performance, we discovered other techniques, like “Contact Improvisation” and it is only later that I began to work with choreographers like Odile Duboc. They taught me the finer subtleties of writing and touch I didn’t know about. We could have changed the piece over the years and adapted it to what we had learnt, to the development of each of us, but we have always preferred to keep it as it is. The value of the piece lies in the way you interpret it.

Dimitri Chamblas: The idea that the piece would grow with us and that one performance did not efface another was already at the heart of our thinking when À bras-le-corps was first performed. Indeed, the dance is highly choreographed and does not change. What has changed over time is our way of interpreting it. Today, we dance it with a certain distance, we are more mature and our technique has changed. All these elements have modified the duet.

At the time, this piece was part of a reaction against the classical training you had received. In what way exactly?

D.C.: When Guy Walter lent us the salon at the Villa Gillet, we made it our laboratory. Even while we were still studying, we were drawn to other disciplines and, on leaving the Conservatoire, we wanted to develop these ideas and encounter new experiences. Quadrifrontal technique, for example. In classical dance training, agility is crucial and the dancer very often adopts a frontal relationship with the audience. The space created in À bras-le-corps, on the other hand, permits us to explore all the dimensions of our bodies and our movement. We also worked on the notion of exhaustion as an end in itself, which doesn’t exist in classical ballets. We were looking for the extreme exhaustion that dancing can induce.

B.C.: We wanted to play around with what we knew, within the bourgeois setting of the Villa Gillet, for example, which could symbolise our training but also the music of Paganini which, for us, corresponded to a sort of salon music. The virtuosity needed to perform the Capriccios reflects the demands of classical technique. It was a way of bidding farewell to the virtuosity of our student days in order to invent other forms of virtuosity.

Was proximity with the audience also a factor?

D.C.: Proximity leads to a different relationship with the spectators. In this way they can have a different perception of the dance and also that of the weight of our bodies, our breathing. 

B.C.: At the Opera, we are taught to project our gaze towards the back row. The closest spectators are twenty metres away. However, in our piece, every one is less than three metres from the dancer. The spectator is confronted with sweating, trembling and fatigue – states induced literally before his eyes.

Dimitri Chamblas and Stéphane Bullion, Karl Paquette and Boris Charmatz
Dimitri Chamblas and Stéphane Bullion, Karl Paquette and Boris Charmatz © Benoite Fanton

You must have a different perspective on it now?

B.C.: Yes, I realise that this piece was formative, it taught us to dance. It taught us to enrich a single gesture with a multitude of resonances and existences and endlessly original situations. According to the place, the context and, particularly, the passing of time, dance is lived differently and sees itself differently.

D.C.: We have danced this piece a hundred and sixty-five times; we have arranged this square of chairs on stages throughout the world, in Dominican churches, municipal halls, gymnasiums and even the Le Corbusier church during a seminar on the combat against Aids. The contexts are completely different. Different venues mean different floor surfaces: grass will not produce the same sound as concrete. The piece changes then, and takes on a different colour. Each place has taught us something.

What is the significance for you of reviving this piece in the Rotonde du Glacier at the Paris Opera?

B.C.: For Dimitri and me there is, first of all, a certain irony as we met each other at the Paris Opera Ballet School. Then, to perform this piece in the Rotonde will again be a new experience. The important thing is to be receptive to the place we are in. For example, the choreography includes steps like the “tour en l’air” (turn in the air), which finishes in a kneeling position, and which are classical ballet steps par excellence. I think that, at the Palais Garnier, these steps take on another meaning, they don’t resonate in the same way.

D.C.: The interesting thing about this duet is that, thanks to its very simple, uncluttered staging, one can dance it in various places, on different floors. La Rotonde, with its parquet floor, its shape and its luminosity, has its own identity and that will interact with our choreography.

Karl Paquette at Stéphane Bullion at la Rotonde du Glacier
Karl Paquette at Stéphane Bullion at la Rotonde du Glacier © Benoîte Fanton / OnP

For the first time, you are entrusting the duet to two other dancers. How is the business of handing it over going?

B.C.: Passing it on was not our original intent. We have always had the impression that this piece was strongly linked to our two bodies and to our rapport with each other. We are not trying to pass on everything we have experienced over twenty-five years but we are helping the two dancers to appropriate this dance, make it their own, with regard to their careers and their own personal experiences.

D.C.: Yes, and how they are going to find each other. For forty minutes, the two dancers are very dependent on each other and have to be able to count on each other. This duo is above all the story of two people.

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