A Show Must Go On, Jérôme Bel Style

By Kate Mattingly

November 1, 2013, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

FEW ARTISTS HAVE TRIGGERED the intensity of divisive responses that Jérôme Bel has elicited for close to two decades.

To some, Bel’s a brilliant artist and a clever provocateur, rethinking if not revolutionizing codes and structures of dance and choreography. To others his work is problematic because of what his performances strengthen as they attempt to subvert. For some audiences his presentations may not even qualify as dancing.

Janice Ross, a Professor in the Theatre and Performance Studies Department and director of the Dance Division at Stanford University, is fully aware of these paradoxes and hopes that they motivate people to attend the Festival Jérôme Bel copresented by Stanford Live and the Dance Division from November 13 to December 2. As she said during a phone interview in September, “Dance belongs in the academy. It belongs on the concert stage. It has much more to say than people are aware. It can be a provocation.”

With this in mind the festival not only includes performances but also discussions as well as events for students. Ross is directing a new immersion program at Stanford called ITALIC (Immersion in The Arts: Living In Culture), and has described this program for 45 freshmen a “boldly ambitious initiative to map the workings of humankind and the development of mind in the world through the arts.” She says the idea to bring Bel to Stanford is intimately connected to the mission of ITALIC, describing Bel as the “ideal artist” since his performances are “intellectual, sophisticated, funny and bridge the divide of the arts and humanities in the University.”

Born in Montpellier in 1964, Bel was inspired by the 1983 Festival d’Avignon where he saw Pina Bausch’s Nelken and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Rosas danst Rosas. He became a student at the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine (CNDC) in Angers from 1984 to 1985 and then danced in the companies of choreographers Angelin Preljocaj, Régis Obadia, Daniel Larrieu and Caterina Sagna until 1991. In 1992 he assisted Philippe Decouflé with the direction of the opening ceremony for the XVIth Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, then embarked on his career as a choreographer by studying philosophy and dance history. His performances are distinguished by their propositional nature.

Bel presents events that introduce situations to be explored by an audience. In 2005 Bel said during a conversation with Jan Ritsema that his goal for Nom donne par l’auteur, created in 1994, was “to give a lot of space to the audience to resolve the enigmas we put on the stage, and many people couldn’t stand it.”

Within several years, Bel’s performances were attracting a following of curious and cultivated art and theater patrons. Bel says of his audiences, “We make the piece together in a way. And what I also try to use is transparency. I give you the rules in the beginning, and then we play together. And of course sometimes, later on, I change the rules just for fun but I mean I try not to hide anything of the work… Not to dominate is my favorite political statement until now.” 1

The Show Must Go On, Photo © Mussacchio Laniello
The Show Must Go On, Photo © Mussacchio Laniello

This is why Bel’s work creates inspiration as well as frustration: the “space” he gives audiences demands a certain type of engagement, a willingness to examine images and words proposed by performers. Some critics and presenters have referred to his performances as “interrogations.” Alastair Spalding, chief executive and artistic director of Sadler’s Wells, says that Bel “is asking a lot of questions about performance and about the art form I love, dance: asking what it actually means and what it does to artists involved in it… it’s a situation where you learn something but you are also entertained at the same time.”2

A good example of Bel’s approach is found in his Véronique Doisneau (2004). A 42-year old ballerina who was about to retire from the Paris Opera Ballet stood alone on stage and recalled her favorite variations and excerpts of choreography, speaking about them as well as dancing them. Bel says that the piece developed from an invitation from Brigitte Lefèvre, who came to see his Last Performance and told Bel there was “…very little dancing in this piece [but] what happened in it was very important for dance.”

Perhaps surprisingly given the pared-down, casual movement in his performances, Bel had a strong interest in classical ballet. The resulting solo, Véronique Doisneau, is not only informative (the dancer reveals her salary, her favorite choreographers, the ages of her children) but also poignant. As Bel says, “The dancer baring her soul cannot leave anyone feeling indifferent.” Several years later Bel used a similar approach when he created a biographical solo with former Cunningham dancer Cédric Andrieux, which is part of the festival at Stanford.

Bel’s works have attracted an avid following. The New York Times reported that last year at the Museum of Modern Art, when excerpts of his The Show Must Go On (2001) were presented, cheering throngs packed the atrium. A long-time champion of the choreographer, dance scholar Andre Lepecki has written extensively about Bel. In his book Exhausting Dance, Lepecki uses theories of Jacques Derrida as well as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to situate and contextualize Bel’s creations.

It makes sense that Bel is often referred to as a “conceptual choreographer,” his performances resonate with theories proposed by philosophers and theorists. As Lepecki writes, “Bel’s work articulates the following proposition: in order to think the relation between choreography, representation, and subjectivity, one needs to understand representation not only as that which is specific to the mimetic (that is, to what is properly theatrical to theatre) but to consider it as an ontohistorical [sic] force, a power that in the West has entrapped subjectivity within a series of isomorphic equivalences.” 3

But not everyone is a fan of Bel’s work. For some, like scholars Ramsay Burt and Susan Foster, his creations are problematic because of what they strengthen as they attempt to subvert.

As Burt writes about Bel’s Pichet Klunchun and Myself (2005), “nothing in it indicates any awareness of the ways in which it reinforces an orientalist world view.”4 Burt ends his article with the line, “While dance collaborations have a potential to help develop new understandings, Pichet Klunchun and Myself shows us how not to go about doing this.”

Foster titled a paper presented at Hamburg’s Dance Congress of 2009 (and subsequent chapter of Emerging Bodies: The Performance of Worldmaking in Dance and Choreography), “Jérôme Bel and Myself: Gender and Intercultural Collaboration.” She writes about Bel’s Pichet Klunchun and Myself that it “reaffirms and reinvigorates hierarchies of civilization implemented in Europe’s colonialization of the world.”5

A decade ago when I was teaching a dance analysis course in Europe and asked students which choreographer inspired or provoked new ways of thinking, almost 90% of the students said Bel. Last fall when I taught a course at George Washington University, I was introducing most of my undergraduate students to Bel’s career, yet he sparked a similar response. A conversation about The Show Must Go On lasted two hours and was extended afterwards via emails.

If you are among those who have not yet encountered his work, or perhaps someone familiar with his projects through recordings or writings and curious to see them live, the Stanford events offer an incredible opportunity.

When Ross approached Stanford Live’s executive director Wiley Hausam about including Bel in their season, he responded enthusiastically. On November 18, when Cedric Andrieux performs a solo by Bel called Cedric Andrieux, the performance takes place on the new Bing Concert Hall stage. It’s the first time professional dance will be seen at this venue that typically presents music performances. New York dance critic Claudia LaRocco will be present to moderate a post-performance discussion. She will also be working with students in the ITALIC program on ways of writing about dance, particularly how to write critically about this art form.

On November 13, twenty members of the Bay Area community will be involved in their own version of Bel’s The Show Must Go On at Memorial Auditorium. Since this piece incorporates dancers, former dancers and people who have never danced, each version absorbs aspects of its locale. Ross describes the Stanford version as “drawing on the identity of our community and giving us the opportunity to see what Silicon Valley looks like filtered through post-modern dance.” This show marks the kickoff event of the festival.

On December 2, a film of Pichet Klunchun and Myself will be presented with Bel present to answer questions and create a dialogue with the audience, supported by a Stanford faculty member helping to focus the questions for this challenging work.

Ross says her aim with the festival is to “take dance out of a marginalized state,” and to recognize its vital relations with theory and philosophy. Dialogue and discourse are essential to sustaining an intellectual framework for dance, and Ross has done an excellent job of designing events to foster exchanges. One potential outcome of this festival is that it inspires other dance departments to take more active steps to bridge divides between performance and dialogue, theory and practice and to be open and willing to discuss controversial topics.

Since Bel has only been seen once before in this area, when Pichet Klunchun and Myself was performed at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 2009, Stanford’s programming offers a rare and terrific way to interact with his performances and ideas. Bel’s creations provide a chance to “pull back the veil on how theater is made,” as Ross says. Then she adds that presenting this festival is also “a high-risk and great way to showcase a remarkable artist.”

1. Bel, Jérôme and Jan Ritesma. 2006. “Their job is not to dance, but to watch other people dancing – if they dance.” In It takes place when it doesn’t: On dance and performance since 1989, edited by Martina Hochmuth, Krassimira Kruschkova, and Georg Schöllhammer, 28-38, Frankfurt am Main: Revolver this a book?)
2. “BMW Tate live: Jérôme Bel – Performance Room.” March 23, 2012 youtube.com/watch?v=l0TmuQmKpDg
3. Lepecki, Andre. 2006. Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement. New York: Routledge.
4. Burt, Ramsay. 2012. “The East West binary and the burden of representation.” Paper presented at Gdansk Dance Conference, “Asia and Europe – cross-cultural dialogues in theatre and dance” June 18th 2012.
5. Foster, Susan. 2011. “Jérôme Bel and Myself: Gender and Intercultural Collaboration.” In Emerging Bodies: The Performance of Worldmaking in Dance and Choreography, edited by Gabriele Klein and Sandra North, 72-82. Bielefeld: Verlag.

This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of In Dance.

Kate Mattingly is a doctoral candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley.