New York

Jérôme Bel

Dance Theater Workshop

“No to spectacle no to virtuosity . . . no to seduction of spectator”—Jérôme Bel takes as a given the commandments of radical dance in America laid down by Yvonne Rainer in her notes for the 1965 Parts of Some Sextets. He is part of a tide of French choreography built on such refutation and which has been assessing and reassessing the meaning of these dictates over the past decade—a period that has seen spectacle, virtuosity, and seduction reinforced as aesthetic norms.

At the Dance Theater Workshop, Bel responded in the only way he could to such superficial gloss; he had us sit in the dark for the opening, song-length sequence of his New York debut The Show Must Go On, 2001. Even with the lights up, he kept the stage bare for the duration of the next track as though determined to confound the audience’s expectations. Confronted by so much emptiness, the mind took over to fill the void, projecting imaginary figures into the brightly lit space. Thus began a game of anticipation.

Next, a motley crew of eighteen people, all ages, shapes, and sizes, gathered to form a wobbly line across the stage and began to move energetically, each in their own way, as Bang Gang’s party hit “I Like to Move It” started to play. One woman pulled her T-shirt over her head and threw it on the floor, dropped her trousers, then repeated the actions again and again. Another jiggled the flab of her inner thigh, while an older gentleman held his protruding belly with both hands, shaking it vigorously and laughing. Following this hilarious demonstration of the variety of ordinary movements, Lionel Richie’s “Ballerina Girl” acted as a cue for the men in the line-up to leave the stage and for the women to do their ballerina-best twirls, signaling that it would be the words—not the music—of pop songs (played by DJ Gilles Gentner at the front of the stage), that provided the instructions for Bel’s unassuming yet analytical choreography.

Bel’s reading of Western dance movement has as much to do with French intellectual history as it does with the Judson Dance Theater and its scrutiny of the body-as-object. Think of his work as a series of duets between Roland Barthes and Trisha Brown, or Jacques Derrida and Steve Paxton. As rich as any literary text, but much more direct and funnier, his dances show that the body, in all its natural awkwardness and self-conscious posing, is a carrier of mass-cultural meaning. He makes it easier for us to follow his train of thought by slowing the dancers almost to a standstill, thereby intensifying the act of watching. We are encouraged to concentrate on the smallest detail—a wrist, a neck, the angle of a head—compulsively scanning stage and auditorium for information. In the process, ideas about dance genres, stage architecture, and the sentimentality of pop songs accumulate. We are also made aware of our own physicality while performers examine theirs, shifting our weight now and then to receive their wide-eyed stares.

Such engaged reading on the part of the viewer is a Bel signature. He invites us to the theater to join him in a conversation about the lives we live in a mediated, cut-and-paste, globalized culture. He stops the music—and time—long enough to ask how we feel in our own skins. Then he sends us home again, more alert in body and mind.

RoseLee Goldberg