The event series What the body remembers at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin comes to a close after almost a month of performances, talks, lectures and workshops. Centred on dance heritage, mostly of the roaring Twenties in Germany but also of later periods internationally, it occupied dance-makers, interpreters, researchers and archivists in discussions about reconstruction and archiving, influences and legacies. The series has offered amazing opportunities to experience ‘reconstructions’ of legendary works and other more recent classics. One of these is À bras-le-corps in which Boris Charmaz and Dimitri Chamblas literally and physically take dance conventions heads on.

Created in 1993 by two young ballet-trained, but curious and rebellious, ‘agitators’, À bras-le-corps questions head-on what they disliked in dance created in the period and shook French dance to its core. Labelled as non-dance, a type of contemporary French dance that is less about movement and more about thinking and concepts, today it is no longer possible to say that À bras-le-corps does not contain dance. The work is extremely physical: on a boxing ring resulting by the tribunes closing in the space on four sides, the audience seated on simple benches is served a match of movements and sweat. The dancers, in white trousers and t-shirts, sit among the public, waiting for their turn or taking a rest. The dance starts with Chamblas dragging Charmaz from under the tribune. At times more wrestling, at times more balletic, the bodies are dragged around and stepped upon, caught in mid air – as you would with a ballerina – and rolled, resisting gravity, horizontally onto one’s own body. But they are also active virtuoso bodies manage-ing the space with jumps and chaînes across the ring or challenging one another through a sequence of double tour en l’air landed on the knee. On an ironic twist, they play with their limbs – I have seen a knee kissed, and toes wiggled in the audience’s face – and their sweat; Charmaz tries to erase the liquid traces of their struggles from the stage. The audience is so close, almost too close, that some bags are moved or involuntarily taken on-stage. The tribunes are containing them from exploding into the whole space. It seems a careless dance that leaves one unsure if it is choreographed or very well improvised. But soon enough, one realises that it is indeed highly crafted.

À bras-le-corps is pure masculine energy, that we are not used to see especially from so close. It is ambiguous, raw and tender and perfectly suits Niccolò Paganini’s Caprices played so loud, during the sudden blacks, that the music almost becomes physical. The friction on the chords reflects the friction of the bodies in the air, on the floor, on another body. The dance is similar to the beauty and simplicity of Paganini’s music, essential but captivating and full of details as the simple walk backwards with a flat tap of the foot, seemingly careless but giving a clear rhythm. It is violent – they attack, wrestling one another – and complicit, striking a balance between competition and cooperation. The movements are relaxed and agile but, at the same time, powerful, their bodies visible from all directions in the lights that keep on changing from very bright to almost dark. The other audience members are also visible in how they react to the closeness and the ruthlessness of the movements. And then there are those delicate moments where we see the bodies become exhausted and take micro-moments to breathe. 

Refined over more than twenty years of performances, the dance has changed with them. Their bodies are still very fit but are those of adult men with their own stories. It is the struggle of life and friendship, and of (ironic, iconic) death – faking being strangled or echoing Baroque paintings of Christ’s body dismounted from the cross. There is no way one could only simply see lines in these bodies, they are too material, too present to be sublimated into (ballet) beautiful disembodied forms. Still, there is plenty of beauty in their synchronised breaths as they perform a Capoeira-like sequence of touring jumps and leaps to plank in their white trousers and t-shirts.

“Cooked at the right point” is possibly the best way of describing À bras-le-corps. The structure of the dance is superb and so is the execution by Charmat and Chamblas who spent years fine-tuning it. Its explosivity makes one wonder, what it would have looked like twenty years ago – the dancers are still wonderful but the movements are really taxing – even though it is almost impossible to imagine it more explosive than now. It seems only fitting to close an event series on dance heritage with a non-dance dance that has now become a dance classic.