We spectators might be sitting around a boxing ring, except that there are only two rows of us on each of its four sides. We’re also on the same level as the contenders and very, very close to them. And contenders isn’t the right word for the two men who dance as if the arena that’s maybe 18 feet square can hardly contain them. Boris Charmatz and Dimitri Chamblas occasionally challenge each other in their robust duet, À bras-le-corps, but it celebrates comradeship and cooperation.
The two of them made the piece in their late teens. They’d met as kids in the Paris Opera Ballet School, encountered each other again at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Lyon, formed Edna Association in 1992, and choreographed À bras-le-corps in 1993. Both have since danced in various French companies, and Charmatz has acquired a very large reputation as an innovative choreographer. Chamblas, no longer dancing full-time, works as an associate producer for a film company. They made a pact to keep performing this duet from time to time for as many years as they could manage to get through it.
One possible translation of the title is Grasping the Body, which they certainly engage in. We also grasp them—come to know them—more intimately than we do most dancers in performance. Charmatz is lean and long-bodied; limber though he is, the eye construes him in angles. Chamblas is beefier, more obviously resilient. Their serious grappling with each other, the space, and what they’re doing happens at close range. We hear their breathing and the thud of their bodies against the floor. We see the sweat that makes their faces shine and flies off them, shimmering in Renaud Lapperousaz’s lighting, when they spin. We feel in our own bodies what Charmatz, memorably, has called “the frailty of effort.” By the end, I want to sit down with them over a beer.
Sometimes the men sit and take a breather in empty front-row chairs. Chamblas, crawling around the perimeter, stops to lean against a spectator’s legs. He lugs Charmatz so close to the watchers that the latter has to bend his legs in order not to hit one of us in the face. Charmatz grabs a jacket off someone’s lap and tosses it to another person in the audience. Chamblas scatters the pages of a program. There is, however, nothing pranksome about these men, however witty they can be. You get the feeling that every time they perform this dance that they made 13 years ago, they recapture the dynamic of trying things out—seeing what will work, pausing sometimes in their rolling and tumbling and leaping and seizing each other, as if to reconsider.
Occasional bursts (mostly very loud) of Paganini Caprices, as recorded by Itzak Perlman, contrast (perhaps ironically) the precise virtuosity engendered by tiny, rapid motions of the violinist’s bow arm with the big, unstable feats of the dancers. Chamblas, kneeling, plunges his joined fists to the floor, yanks them up, and opens his arms wide before driving his fists down again. Isadora Duncan did the same thing in the 1920s in her Revolutionary ÉtudeI; and Charmatz has something of her fervor and a lot more raw vigor. Chamblas takes a huge, rough-edged leap that looks as if he could clear both rows, but he keeps its trajectory easily in check. The two performers neither exaggerate or minimize effort. We can see for ourselves what it takes for Chamblas to lift Charmatz, hold his colleague braced horizontally against his thighs, and turn him over a few times before rolling him out onto the floor and standing for a few moments on his back.
Some of their movements have such an athletic swing to them that we can believe they’re improvising. Until they fall into perfectly timed unison. They may not fight each other, but sometimes they appear to fight their dancing, or vice versa. They don’t so much compete as create structures that imply competition. Chamblas whips off a multiple pirouette, finishes with a ta-da! flourish, and rests. Charmatz gets up, does a fancy spin of his own and a few other moves. And so on. They push their bodies to the limit, but also respect them (Charmatz kisses his knee as he rolls, then the floor).
À bras-le-corps, with its tongue-in-cheek “rounds” separated by blackouts, lasts only about 35 minutes. In that time, much is won.