New York

Jérôme Bel

Joyce Theater

Jérôme Bel’s Cédric Andrieux, 2009, begins promisingly enough, with the handsome, virtuosic, eponymous French dancer walking casually onstage and plainly announcing: “My name is Cédric Andrieux. . . .” In the iteration performed in September at the Joyce Theater in New York, as part of the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival, Andrieux charmingly narrated aspects of his life, his discovery of dance, his early ineptitude, his mother’s belief in the form’s “egalitarian” principles, his flagging faith in said principles, his eventual stardom, his move to New York and eight-year-stint with the Merce Cunningham company, his return to France with his boyfriend to join the Lyon Opera Ballet, and his meeting of Bel on a train and the subsequent development of Cédric Andrieux. In between the talking, he adroitly performed exercises and excerpts from pieces by Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Bel, and others. There were two costume changes—bookending the Cunningham recital—and only one instance of music and theatrical lighting, which accompanied a demonstration of Bel’s landmark The Show Must Go On, 2001.

This is not Bel’s first “story” ballet; indeed, the biographical drive is so prevalent in the Belian oeuvre that it might be his defining intervention into the form. From his 1995 piece Jérôme Bel to The Last Performance (A Lecture), 2004, to his series of dancer “portraits”—Véronique Doisneau, 2004, Isabel Torres, 2005, Pichet Klunchun and Myself, 2005, Lutz Förster, 2009, and now Cédric Andrieux—Bel has sought to contrive and “destabilize,” to varying degrees of success, the conventions of theatrical narrative and choreographic self-expression. He might be the Dave Eggers of dance, a cheeky student of postmodernism so expertly packaged as to be cloying, like artificially flavored medicine. When his brand of clever poignancy works—as it does so well with Véronique Doisneau, a piece simultaneously based around and constituting the final performance of a dancer retiring from the corps of the Paris Opera Ballet—it can be surprising and sublime and faintly cruel. When it doesn’t, it risks making its subjects into caricatures.

Cédric Andrieux often doesn’t work, and for reasons that one suspects have little to do with Andrieux, who is an eminently watchable performer. One stumbling block is the silly, sometimes emasculating humor, as when he shows off the thonglike rear of a dance belt, to predictable wah-wah effect. More troublesome, however, is the aggrandizing narrative teleology, a thematization of dance history that culminates with Bel as inevitable savior. When you’re sporting a dance belt and a silly Cunningham leotard, Cédric Andrieux suggests, you’re subjected; when you get to wear your own clothes and tell your own story, you’re a free agent.

Near the end, as Andrieux performs from The Show Must Go On, the lights rise, the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” plays, and barebones catharsis gives way to spectacular propaganda. Bel, Andrieux argues, teaches us that “we are people before we are dancers,” a subject relationship that, even if it’s straight from Andrieux’s mouth, sounds phony in a piece by Bel, who is prone to citing Deleuze and Debord and who surely has a complicated view of the ontological priority of the “performer” versus the “performed.” “From now on,” Andrieux explains in his concluding remarks, “I would like to have a more active role in the choreographic process.” A genuinely admirable idea, but is this really the take-home message of the piece? In the end, Cédric Andrieux is either an ironic send-up of the project of egalitarianism or, worse, an unreflective (and faintly messianic) ode to Bel’s “democratization” of the medium.

The virtue of Véronique Doisneau, besides its terrific subject, was that it could only happen once. Cédric Andrieux mines this formula for live repertory, with varying results. As a counterpoint, interested parties might consider Miguel Gutierrez’s more convincing dance “autobiography” Retrospective Exhibitionist, 2005. In Cédric Andrieux, Andrieux may be the performer and title, but he is also its subject, and Bel remains, problematically, the author of the contraption from which this all hangs.

David Velasco