What’s the difference between a gesture and a movement? And what does such a difference have to do with our sensibilities and the political? Put differently, although it is common to conceptualize something like a political movement (like Black Lives Matter, the Russian Revolution, Reproductive Rights, or the Zapatistas), it is harder to imagine a political gesture. Theorists like Juana María Rodríguez, José Muñoz, Daphne Brooks, Walter Benjamin, and Giorgio Agamben have grappled with the notion of a political gesture and its larger critical function.

Boris Charmatz similarly takes on this difficult task. Since the early 1990s, his choreographic practices have asked us to rethink established notions around what we consider to be good or bad art, dance, movement, and politics. In particular, contemporary dance is in a moment of transition, dealing with its relationship to not only postmodern, but also modern dance. Following the death of many modern and postmodern dance masters (Martha Graham, Trisha Brown, and Merce Cunningham), we have relied heavily on the reconstruction, reperformance, and reproduction of “master pieces” by master choreographers.

In this moment that repeatedly presents in concert halls and museums the reperformance of codified movements, Boris Charmatz turns to 10,000 Gestures. In other words, Charmatz explores the line dividing movement and gesture, political movement and political gesture. 10,000 Gestures questions our reliance on reproduction, whereby we presume the dancer to be the living archive of a choreographer’s repertoire. Charmatz, instead, grapples with not only this notion of a living archive, but also dance’s own relationship to masters, mastery, and master works. He thus offers contemporary dance a moment to query what constitutes its relationship to the modern and its modern dance masters.

So you might then ask what’s political about this turn from movement to gesture? By asking his audiences to recalibrate what they presume art and movement to be, Charmatz’s work acts as an invitation to renegotiate our sensibilities around multiple arenas like the political. This larger practice around challenging our political and aesthetic sensibilities can be further understood in the formation of La Musée de la Danse (Dancing Museum), which he created in 2008. By placing the archive-oriented and object-based museum in relation to the ephemeral practice of dance, Charmatz encourages us to muddy our preconceived notions around dance and the museum; ephemerality and the archive; and feeling and knowledge. By confusing our sensibilities, we begin to reconceptualize the lines we draw across other arenas that we presume to be common sense.

Hentyle Yapp is an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Public Policy at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and an affiliated faculty with the Department of Performance Studies and the Disability Council.