A Decade of 20 Dancers for the 20th Century
By Claudine Colozzi
A decade after it premiered at the Champs Libres in Rennes, Boris Charmatz's 20 dancers for the 20th century – a dance installation intended to showcase the diversity of 20th and 21st-century dance, through the bodies of 20 performers – has remained popular with art venues around the world. By relocating excerpts from landmark works in entirely new settings, this nomadic exhibition playfully interrogates the notion of living memory in choreography – and who gets to embody it. While the actress and performer Marlène Saldana has been taking part in 20 dancers for the 20th century since 2015, Allister Madin, a former soloist with the Paris Opera Ballet and principal with the Royal New Zealand Ballet and Béjart Ballet Lausanne, joined the cast in May, for two performances at the Centre Pompidou-Metz. In this conversation, they discuss their individual experiences with Charmatz's production.
Allister, how did you come to join the cast of 20 dancers for the 20th century?
Allister Madin: I was approached by Boris Charmatz’s team in early March. Benjamin Pech, who had been dancing in it for a few years, wasn’t available, and he recommended me. We came up with a neoclassical repertory composed of pieces by the Ballets Russes, Balanchine and Béjart, which suit me style-wise.
Marlène, is it apt to say that you belong to the core group of original performers?
Marlène Saldana: I joined the project in 2015, for a performance at the Tate Modern in London. We were working on a piece named Manger at the time, and Boris asked me if I wanted to be a part of 20 dancers. I’m one of the veterans, along with Fabrice Mazliah.
How do you feel about the proximity with the audience in this production?
A.M.: It’s very moving for me to see how the audience reacts. On stage you can’t always tell, except when the curtain goes down and we take a bow. Here, you can see the audience react warmly.
M.S.: The relationship with the audience isn't as predetermined and smooth as in a theatre. Here, visitors are free to come and go as they please. They can stop, comment on one piece, move on to the next – everyone can find works that resonate with them, or on the contrary choreography that unsettles them. In any case, I’ve never seen a negative reaction, even if the audience is often taken aback by the fact that I dance nude in one piece.
What works do you perform?
M.S.: I do mostly repertoire pieces and reenactments, like a performance by Vito Acconci that is close to body art, Heidi’s Four Basket Dances by Mike Kelley and La Fille du collectionneur (The Collector’s Daughter) by Théo Mercier.
A.M.: I picked several pieces, among them a version of The Dying Swan on pointe. In 2022, it felt interesting to challenge gender expectations by showing a man dancing in pointe shoes, which are typically associated with femininity in ballet. This 1905 piece, choreographed by Michel Fokine for Anna Pavlova, has been performed by many dancers. Marie-Solenne Boulet, who performed it when 20 dancers for the 20th century was presented at the Paris Opera, suggested I dance it topless and on pointe. We worked together on the articulation of the upper body and the fluidity in the arms. In the end, my version is inspired by both Ulyana Lopatkina’s and Ghislaine Thesmar’s, with a spiritual quality to it.
Why is this project a draw for performers?
A.M.: The team is incredible. I wasn’t expecting it. All these artists are so open-minded, it’s so rare – they’re all eager to discover and meet others. Boris treats all his performers with love and respect. When I was in Metz, I talked a lot with Julie Shanahan, who danced with Pina Bausch, and her approach to dance, her maturity gave me a lot of food for thought.
M.S.: It’s very rare as an artist to spend that much time with fellow performers. I love watching others. We talk about our various approaches. Every year, I look forward to seeing them again. I’ve learned a lot from others, and having had the chance to meet Germaine Acogny or Ko Murobushi through this project remains an unforgettable experience.
Why do you think this exploration of over a century of dance still resonates with audiences, ten years after its premiere?
A.M.: Probably because it’s as exciting to perform as it is to see and discover! My biggest frustration as a latecomer is to not have had the chance to see everyone's performances.
M.S.: The project feels new every time we change locations. At first, I doubted myself a lot because I’m an actress, not a trained dancer. My contribution is more on the performance side than on the dance side. But now I’ve embraced it – I live in the moment when I perform.