Boris Charmatz’s 10,000 Gestures can be exhilarating, enervating and overwhelming in equal measures. The French choreographer has taken over the cavernous space of the old Mayfield train depot and, during the space of an hour, he pushes the title of his new work to the extreme, bombarding his audience with a chaos of movement so rapid and random it is almost impossible to absorb.
Charmatz’s idea is to test the limits of how we see and remember a work of dance. We’re allowed tiny moments of repetition; a performer hopping eccentrically across the floor might take a half-dozen lopsided bounds. But we never witness a movement idea recur and we don’t see anything resembling choreographic style. Charmatz interprets gesture as everything from a precisely executed classical pirouette to a capoeira kick to the idle scratching of a buttock, and as a result, he lets a whole world of human movement, live and thrashing, on to his stage.
The work starts with 100 or so gestures, a breathlessly disconnected sequence of spinning, falling, semaphoring moves performed by a woman dressed in a sequin cheerleader’s outfit. As the other motley costumed dancers flood the stage, we start to identify fleeting categories in their blizzard of movement: physical variations on jumping or sliding, expressive variations on violence or sex.
These are minimal signposts, however, and after about 15 minutes it looks as though Charmatz’s experiment might start to pall. Yet he is an astute man of the theatre, and the second half becomes mesmerising as he starts to utilise the awesome scale of Mayfield, sometimes crowding his dancers up close to us (so near that they’re clambering over our seats), other times sending them out to the edges so that they become wavering and indistinct.
Charmatz is just as adroit with emotional scale. Much of the work is accompanied by Mozart’s Requiem. The music is sometimes just background noise to the dancers’ busy activities, but at times it swells to its full expressive beauty. During one section the dancers are howling, jabbing and rocking in pain, but a change in the lighting makes the floor turn silvery and the dancers seem to float gently on a paradisiacal lake.
Far from simply playing with the ephemeral nature of dance, Charmatz ends up meditating on life and death.
. At Mayfield Depot, Manchester, until 15 July, as part of the Manchester international festival. Box office: 0843-208 1840.