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Showtime: Jérôme Bel 1994-2005, Lilian Baylis Theatre, London EC1
In The last performance (a lecture), 2004, French choreographer Jérôme Bel narrates his own development from ten years as a dancer in the 1980s, to a sabbatical in the early '90s spent reading poststructuralist theory, to his present-day status as a leading proponent of European conceptual dance. The piece serves as a quasi retrospective of his oeuvre and his thinking; it’s also quintessential Bel in its self-referentiality and desire to recapitulate previous works. Bel sits casually behind a desk at the side of the stage, a fur coat slung over his chair, occasionally glancing at his laptop while telling us the checkered history of his reception-the ideas that didn't come off, the audiences that walked out, the need to rethink his basic assumptions. It is dance without dance, closer to the classic artist's talk, albeit delivered with more self-deprecating charm and illustrated not with PowerPoint but video and live action.
In his recent reprisal of The last performance (a lecture) during his retrospective "Showtime: Jérôme Bel 1994-2005" at Sadler's Wells in February, Bel's longtime collaborator Frédéric Seguette came onstage three times to interrupt the narrative. Each time, Seguette performed Bel's Shirtology, 1997, so that in effect we saw two pieces spliced into each other, functioning as mutual illustrations. Shirtology is conceived as an extremely long striptease in which the performer peels off shirt after shirt (at least thirty of them), allowing a long moment to elapse between the removal of each garment. The first time, the shirts are numbered; the second, they are sequenced by color; and the last, they bear slogans that Seguette follows as instructions (such as dance or die, replay, shut up and dance, and relax). It is important to note that when any dancing does occur in the piece-at most perhaps three times-it is the kind of charmingly amateur boogie that most thirtysomethings resort to at drunken parties. Shirtology is typical of Bel's performances in its nonvirtuosity, literalism, and drawn-out, deadpan humor. At the end of each sequence, Seguette shuffles offstage and Bel resumes his presentation.
The central focus of The last performance (a lecture) is Bel's The last performance, 1998, a piece that he vows never to perform again, primarily because it was a crashing failure. (Of course, his narrative demands that the audience was outraged and walked out, but it is hard to imagine that their response was so extreme.) Bel will now only talk about the event-hence the lecture-and show video clips when necessary. The "original" last performance can be read as an attempt at choreography degree zero: Bel had written to a number of choreographers asking if he could appropriate one of their dances as his own. Turned down by Pina Bausch (he was particularly keen to use a German Expressionist), he finally received a positive reply from Susanne Linke, who let him use her emotionally wrought solo, Transfiguration, 1976, for a female dancer dressed in a white slip and set to the elegiac second movement of Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet. Bel's appropriation involved repeating Linke's dance four times, each time with a different dancer (including himself) in the same white dress. In his recounting of this piece, Bel tells us that it was a meditation on Gilles Deleuze's seminal text Difference and Repetition; it is hard to imagine many Anglophone artists getting away with such a comparison, but Bel pulled it off. He also invoked Peggy Phelan's influential and contested 1993 essay, The Ontology of Performance, in which the theorist argues that the essence of performance is its evanescent unrepeatability, and he pointed out that The last performance proved Phelan's argument to be true: Each time Linke's dance was repeated, it was different (even if only minutely so). One of Bel's aims was to attune the audience to these microshifts in perception and interpretation.
These conclusions could appear somewhat undergraduate, if they were not delivered with such boyish Gallic charm-as if Bel were trying to democratize not just contemporary dance but also critical theory. As an explicit work of citation, both theoretical and artistic, The last performance is essential to understanding how his extremely reductive pieces, which risk sounding (and looking) like one-liners at first, have a complexity of ambition and self-reflexivity that far exceed their initial premise. In this respect, his productions could be compared to the carefully scripted situations of artist Tino Sehgal: A simple movement or instruction can be inexhaustibly riveting when we start to pay attention to the slippage between idea and bodily execution, particularly when authorship itself is so clearly thematized. I was left wondering to what degree The last performance (a lecture) was scripted and whether Bel should indeed be fully identified with the character onstage. When presented this past February, the lecture culminated with an account of how Bel had, by 2000, theorized his way into noncomposition, having asked Xavier Le Roy to choreograph a dance and name Bel as its author. This was a magnificent cliff-hanger, paving the way for the following evening's performance, The show must go on , 2001: Taking its name from Queen's campy epic, the work signaled Bel's return to choreography and was staged in the main theater at Sadler's Wells.
It is probably safe to say that those of us who had experienced The last performance (a lecture) had an infinitely richer time of The show must go on than the audience members who hadn't, many of whom audibly moaned about the piece's glib thinness on the way out. It is true that the piece is extremely simple: one DJ, nineteen pop songs, and twenty dancers. A DJ plays songs from a stack of CDs in front of the stage, and the lyrics are performed utilizing the full theatrical apparatus. The first song (Tonight from West Side Story) is played to a dark auditorium. Let the Sunshine In brings a dawning of the stage lights. During the Beatles' Come Together, the performers walk onstage and stand in a line, completely still. Roughly thirty seconds into David Bowie's Let's Dance, they start to gyrate (more thirtysomething amateur boogie). After another moment, the performers stop and rest, staring at the audience, slightly out of breath; one minute later, they resume. This withdrawal and resumption of entertainment is deliberately frustrating and seems designed to invite reflection on the absurdity of a situation in which twenty amateurs appear to be performing their bedroom dance moves for a paying audience.
The rest of The show must go on rattles through more schmaltzy classics, all performed with deadpan literalism. As with recent video installations that make use of pop music (such as Phil Collins's the world won't listen, 2004-2007), the sound track is used as a cipher for collective experience. The urge to join in was almost overwhelming, especially when you knew you could do just as well (if not better) than the people onstage. And yet theatrical protocol prevailed; the only time that a handful of audience members rose to their feet was during "Sexual Healing," and it was predictably cringe-worthy. The dream of breaking down the fourth wall was mercifully halted when the DJ ripped out the CD halfway through, leaving the all-too-eager participants dangling in the wake of the brutal truncation of Marvin Gaye.
For all its simplicity, The show must go on seemed primarily a reflection on theater and virtuosity. Twenty dancers on a huge stage, and half the time they're not even doing anything we could call dance. What do we even want to see when we go to a performance? What is the function of choreography today? Some of these questions were directly addressed the following weekend, when the audience reconvened in the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler's Wells for Bel's most recent work, Pichet Klunchun and myself, 2005, a dialogue between himself and the eponymous Thai dancer. The two men sat opposite each other onstage, wry clichés of East and West: Bel wore jeans, an orange T-shirt, sneakers, and sat with a laptop; Klunchun was dressed monastically in black, with shaved head, bare feet, and a bottle of water. Bel began by asking Klunchun simple questions, which led to a demonstration of traditional Thai khon dance and its four characters: female, male, demon, and monkey. The audience was entirely on Bel's side when he confessed that he couldn't see the difference between the four moves. After being taught some of these Thai steps (more amateurism and comic de-skilling), Bel became the focus of Klunchun's curiosity, asked to explain what kind of dance he choreographs and why. This could be seen as a pretext for Bel to respond to his critics-it certainly furnished a substantial platform for self-justification-but more emerged from this conversation than mere narcissism.
Pichet Klunchun and myself starkly confronts the audience with two traditions of dance and the cultural chasm between them, although the differences are framed as national cliché: the Thai khon, emerging from royal tradition and now used as a form of touristic entertainment; and a French avant-garde, emerging from democratic revolution and now competing with a society of the spectacle. Bel's overt reference to Debord provided an opportunity for the choreographer to reflect amusingly on our relationship with contemporary art. In the West, he explained to Klunchun, a certain sector of the public goes to see contemporary art precisely because they don't know what they will experience, and they are even willing to pay money to risk almost certain disappointment. After demonstrating a particularly uneventful section of The show must go on to a comically incredulous Klunchun, Bel explained that his aim is precisely to disappoint the audience: "I don't want to give them what they expect; that's too easy."
Paradoxically, this refusal to entertain is itself deeply entertaining-at least for those of us familiar with Bel's reading list, able to relish the mise en abyme of theoretical references, tongue-in-cheek stereotypes, and judicious antivirtuosity. His work is closely tied to the preoccupations and discourse of contemporary art: Appropriation, de-skilling, and spectacle are all key descriptors of his practice, and it seems fitting that Bel has cited Daniel Buren's 1970 essay The Function of the Studio as inspiring him to work in situ, rejecting the framework of conventional choreography, of hiring a studio and dancers, of rehearsing for months before going on the road and of systematically documenting performances. On the other hand, Bel's work remains so closely tied to the theatrical apparatus that it manages to function-like Buren's early installations-as a form of institutional critique. (In a joint interview with Buren, he described dance as a "tool," comparing it to Buren's stripes.) And although Bel was included in last year's Lyon Biennial, he does not intend to repeat this experience: An exhibition context emphasized the degree to which he relies on the conventions of theater to generate meaning. At its best, this amounts to a reflection on the institution of dance and its current relationship with other forms of culture and consumption (from critical theory to pop music). Like all artists invested in this strategy, Bel is as devoted to his discipline as he is to its unraveling.
Claire Bishop is an Associate Professor of Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York.