For one night in March, French choreographer Jérôme Bel comes to San Francisco to present his work “Pichet Klunchun and Myself.” More a performance work about dance than it is a dance per se, this is the first of Bel’s works to make it to the Bay Area.
First let me say, you have to see this show. Every dancer, choreographer, critic and teacher in the Bay Area who wants to have a well-informed understanding of what is happening in contemporary dance—especially outside America—needs to be familiar with Jérôme Bel’s work. In the last ten years Bel has become arguably one of the three or four most influential contemporary choreographers in the world. The only reason the general public hasn’t heard of him is because American arts funding sucks so badly that American presenters can no longer afford to bring young innovative artists from Europe who don’t have a name already (read: can’t sell a lot of tickets).
Bel’s early career in dance peaked when he was working as the assistant to choreographer Philippe Decouflé on the creation of the opening ceremonies for the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. Those of us of a certain age will remember watching the ceremonies on television and seeing something resembling Cirque du Soleil on ice. It was exciting to see such an innovative artist in the opening extravaganza of such a mainstream event.
Afterwards, Bel was unsatisfied with the endless repetition of motion that characterized much of the dancing he saw. He took a hiatus and began an extended reading project, studying theory critical of the spectacularization and commodification of contemporary culture (mostly French). Bel came back to contemporary dance with a very different vision of what a performance might do. In works like “Jérôme Bel” (1995), “The Last Performance” (1998), “The Show Must Go On” 1 and 2 (2001, 2004) and “Veronique Doisneau” (2004), Bel slowed down the bodies he choreographed, investigating more what those bodies mean, how we read them in the act of performance, and how issues of identity and issues of authorship affect the performance transaction. Bel’s choreographies became quite minimal, for some problematically so. During more than one Jérôme Bel performance I have heard audience members complain, “This is not dance” while noisily exiting the theater, well before the end of a Bel work.
I caught up with Bel via email as he was returning from a recent tour in Mexico and he graciously responded to my many questions, albeit with the caveat that he was extremely jetlagged.
Q: You’ve been to America before, and have talked about liking how your work “The Show Must Go On” was received in New York, but have you been to the West Coast? Do you have a sense of the culture of dance here or what kind of audiences you might encounter?
Jérôme: Yes, we have been to Portland for the PICA [Portland Institute for Contemporary Art] Festival. It went well. But this piece, “Pichet Klunchun and Myself” is okay everywhere because it is about explaining what culture is. I don’t fear anything from the West Coast!
Q: There are several moments in the piece where you make reference to your own work in ways that I found charming, self-depreciating and hilarious, but largely because I was already familiar with your work. Is there anything that you would like San Francisco audiences to know? Do you think the piece functions well as an introduction to the work of Jérôme Bel?
Jérôme: No, I disagree. This piece can be seen without knowing anything about my aesthetic or previous works because the piece is about my encounter with traditional Thai dancer Pichet Klunchun who doesn’t know anything about me as I don’t know anything about him. That is why we have to start from the beginning, like the audience, who doesn’t know us. [So] yes, it is a kind of “Jérôme Bel for beginners,” because
I try to explain to the doubtful Pichet Klunchun what is at stake in my work.
Q: You have been quite clear that you are not interested in “entertaining” your audience. Yet I have always found your work to be very witty and have a sense of humor. Does it matter to you whether people enjoy your work?
Jérôme: My goal is never to entertain. It is to make people think. It is true that some people enjoy my way to make them think, but not everybody. A lot of people just want to have a nice evening, which is not what I try to produce. And of course I love that audiences enjoy the work, but not too much. If they just enjoy it, I am disappointed. I am more ambitious than that.
Q: You’ve talked about being disillusioned after working with Phillipe Decouffle, one of the most “entertaining” and “spectacular” choreographers around. And your work is certainly read as “anti-spectacle.” Are there useful things that you learned from working with him?
Jérôme: Not really, I understood that I would be the opposite of him. I respect his way to work, but it is not mine. He uses his dreams to work. I use my analyses.
Q: Your work has been described as exploring a “slower ontology of movement” by critic and theorist André Lepecki. Is it possible to have thoughtful dancing that is also about motion?
Jérôme: Of course, there are thoughtful dances, think about Trisha Brown or William Forsythe. Their dances are thoughts in motion. My work is not danced but it is about dance. The main issue is dance even if there is very, very little dance in the performances.
Q: Clearly your work is about deconstructing, and even critiquing the exchange that is High Art stage performance. Yet you continue to work within this system. Your work is produced through the investment of an elite group of culture producers and purchased by a market of presenters for distribution to an audience that mostly sits in the dark while you or your ideas (or your employees) remain on stage in the light. Do you see your work as contributing to a substantial redefinition of performance or is it just a performance of redefinition?
Jérôme: No, I don’t work out of the theater, out of this “elite” as you say. This context is the one I chose. I am fine with it. This minor position in the economy of the spectacle allows me to do whatever I want. I feel free. There is no money involved really. I don’t sell anything, there is no possible speculation on it and that is liberating. I can just make research, be edgy, take risks … at least this is my position today in Europe. I have support from the State and producers, which puts me in a very comfortable situation.
I do hope my work tries a “redefinition of performance” like [what] my predecessors Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer and Pina Bausch did. But no, “redefinition” is not the right term. I try to extend the definition of dance or performance. I try to reach the limits of those fields, to stretch this field as much as I can.
Q: Some of your work addresses the act of theatrical representation and issues of identity and authorship. You have now performed this “conversation” with Pichet many times. How many? How much does this work change over time? I read that you recently remade a version with eight of Pichet’s Thai colleagues. What do you learn from performing yourself onstage over and over?
Jérôme: [We have performed it] around a hundred times. It changes when we feel like it. The script of the piece is open to any new statements. As the two authors of these “conversations” are the performers themselves (there is no written text) the performers/authors can change their discourses when they want. Depends on our mood, our situation. For example, Pichet says different things if we perform in Thailand, Asia or in the West. I can say specific things if I know that somebody is in the theater and I want to make him/her understand a particular thing.
I personally learn so much from Pichet, he surprises me all the time. I learn to feel free on stage, not to fear it as it is in the western theater tradition. I learn a lot from the audience’s reactions, which are so different from one country to the other. [It] is so fascinating to see that the exact same scene can be hilarious somewhere and totally banal somewhere else. I learn from the audience. I can see the way the audience thinks.
Q: To what extent is Pichet Klunchun also an “author” of this work?
Jérôme: What he says is his discourse. I didn’t interfere in it. I didn’t direct him. I asked him questions and he answered me, well or badly. That is not the point.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
Jérôme: I am tired.
If what you like about dance is watching beautiful bodies move effortlessly through space in flowing lyricism, then you might hate this work. But if you are interested in participating in a much larger international discussion on the performing arts, then seeing Bel’s work is important. You might even find yourself enjoying hating it. You might decide that you like the work, but want to argue about whether it should be called dance. You might go home arguing that “Pichet Klunchun and Myself” is actually reiterating colonialist privilege even as it ostensibly tries to counter the colonialist fetishizing of the exotic other. You might go home more interested in Thai traditional dance than in French conceptual dance. Whether you go home thinking, talking, arguing, or agreeing, you’ll be using your brain in a way that would make Jérôme Bel (and myself) happy, whether you “like” his work or not.