10,000 Gestures: MIF17

Specially created for Manchester International Festival 2017, Boris Charmatz’s 10,000 Gestures makes the startling claim that no step is ever seen more than once within the piece. This is highly unusual for dance, which is so often built on spatial or temporal patterns. It’s also performed in an unlikely but stunning venue—the cold, derelict Mayfield depot.

10,000 Gestures begins with a single dancer clad in a bright red sequinned costume, throwing herself around the space in a whirlwind of steps and gestures, before the remaining cast arrive onto the stage in a sudden, thrilling stampede.

The next hour is an absolute chaos of movement. As a result of the piece’s premise, there are no patterns and very few clear points of focus amongst the crowd of 25 performers. Occasionally there are moments of crossover, for instance when the whole ensemble mimes committing suicide, or when they gradually fall still one by one. But trying to take it all in is overwhelming and exhausting—like watching children play a made-up game that you can’t understand.

This impression of infantility is increased by the bizarre array of costumes, which could have been pulled from a fancy dress box, or the way in which the dancers count through the steps out loud. In between the gestures, they sprint energetically across the space and throw themselves fearlessly onto the floor.

Certainly the physical demands placed on the dancers by the choreography is extreme, with the relentless pace rarely letting up and such a vast floor space to cover. Yet it’s difficult not to feel that having highly skilled, trained dancers lick the floor or pretend to have a shower is a questionable use of their talents.

Charmatz pushes the boundaries in terms of audience enjoyment too—at one point, all 25 dancers scream their heads off for what feels like several minutes, and the noise is painful in the extreme. A sudden burst of interaction sees the dancers flood into the stand seating, climbing over people, pulling off their shoes, kissing them on the lips and even pulling them onto the stage and using them in lifts. Breaking down the invisible wall between performer and audience has immediate impact—there is audible laughter at its cheekiness, but there’s also a strong feeling of awkwardness.

Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor is an emotive choice of soundtrack, echoing dramatically through the cathedral-like Mayfield space. The rope lighting glinting from its huge pillars only adds to this impression—the expanse and architecture of this space make it a beautiful, atmospheric choice of venue and it would be wonderful to see it used again once MIF is over.

10,000 Gestures will not be to everyone’s taste, though judging by the audience’s rapturous reaction to it on opening night, it is to a lot of people’s. It could be interpreted as a depressing allegory for life and death—25 people futilely screaming and gesturing to no end, before receding into the dark abyss. It could be admired for breaking the mould, or just be enjoyed for its pure surrealism. Whatever your view, there’s no denying that it is a spectacle.

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