Gerald Siegmund : Since 1994 you have produced six pieces the first of which Name given by the author puts two dancers on the same level as objects which are handled and moved about on the stage. Does the absence of dance as personal and original expression mean that there is any presence of choreography?
Jérôme Bel : Yes, it does. The decision to use objects instead of dancers (Frédéric Seguette and myself only being there to move them about on the stage during the show) came from a wish to reify theatrical and choreographic codes. The mechanical and inert property of the objects contrasted with the “emotional” and living one of dancers who are normally used for a dance performance. The dehumanisation of the piece made it possible therefore to avoid any unwelcome affects in this project. Choosing to use objects, the absence of any conjuring, and restraining our presence on stage to a maximum were part of a strategy which made it possible for choreography to appear where paradoxically there would not even be a hint of the least dance step! In fact all that remained of this operation was the skeleton of a dance show: a choreography-skeleton devoid of its dance-flesh. As you say, “a presence of choreography” since we have tried to make everything else as absent as possible.
Gerald Siegmund : You write your pieces as a writer writes a book. Before the rehearsals with the dancers start, the scenario is finished. You therefore don't like working with improvisation. Why ?
Jérôme Bel : I write the shows before meeting the actors. Without a doubt this is due to laziness because I don't like rehearsing at all. Besides, I find these rehearsals more and more pointless. It seems to me that there is only one type of theatrical practice possible for me, that is to say, the public performance. Writing the piece, alone or with a circle of a few loyal and understanding assistants around me, and rehearsing with the performers are only risky speculations because theatre cannot be done without the presence of the public which changes everything. The comparison to a writer is pertinent only in as much as a writer writes for the “empty page” of a book, and I do for the “black box” of the stage. As for improvisation, I feel it's a totally overestimated practice in the choreographic field today. The presupposition of freedom and authenticity of the subject generally accepted by improvisers seems to me to show an extremely naïve attitude. People like Foucault, Deleuze or Bourdieu have shown how illusory such an idea is. Neuro-scientific research only confirms what they say a little more each day. The many improvised shows that I've been able to see all over the world in recent years have only shown me the unbelievable conformism of the results of this practice, which is nothing to be ashamed of, far from it, but which, I think, needs to be re-examined by anyone who uses it.
Gerald Siegmund : The absence of a dancing body in name given by the author concludes with the absence of a natural body in Jérôme Bel. The piece calls into question the modernist myth of a vitalistic body which in dancing never lies. Instead of being an instrument of truth, it appears as an eloquent body, which is almost baroque in its rhetorical capacity.
Jérôme Bel : Yes, that's right, the body as a critical tool, and thus as a discursive agent. A few years ago in a festival which I won't name, during a press conference I was taking part in with other choreographers invited to the same festival, a choreographer, who shall remain nameless, said “The body does not lie”. Such a remark is based on that disgusting .old modernist myth, bogged down in Judeo-Christianity. The body is not the sanctuary of truth, authenticity or uniqueness. It is deeply subjugated to culture, politics and history. You don't have to look far for proof of that in our own field. For example, a dancer does not walk on the stage like an amateur. I can see at once when a dancer in my shows is taking dancing lessons. Personally, I prefer them not to train… which generally they accept enthusiastically. Anthropological, medical, sociological, psychoanalytical etc. study and knowledge of those numerous agents which modify the body (its stereotypes, its cultural censorship, its perception, its movements, etc.) have enabled me in Jérôme Bel to make a critical speech about the body through the medium of the body itself.
Gerald Siegmund : Shirtology with all its T-shirt slogans presents a body which must be read, a body that is cultural rather than personal.
Jérôme Bel : Shirtology came from the discoveries which made Jérôme Bel possible. The step to take after what Jérôme Bel established for me was to try and see what could be done with this “physical culture”, or rather corporeal culture. So it was a bid to see how it was possible to react to this cultural alienation that capitalism weighs our bodies down with, for that really is the case because the current dominant cultural ideology is economico-political. So, whereas Jérôme Bel illustrated the great hold that capitalist culture has on the body at its deepest levels, Shirtology proposed to resist this capitalism. However, the strategy used in the piece was not so much to resist as to use capitalism's strength, to take advantage of its energy so as to subvert it and use it to its own advantage.. So I think that in Shirtology we are going from the public sphere to the private one. In fact, the advertising T-shirts with their messages extolling a triumphant capitalism, but presented in a particular order made it possible for the actor to compose a much more personal speech undermining current dominant ideology.
Gerald Siegmund : Jérôme Bel is also a way of calling into question the elements which make up a dance show: the body, its stage performances, its interaction with the space and other bodies around it, the light and the music.
Jérôme Bel : Having been stimulated by reading Zero Point of Literature by Roland Barthes, I wondered about the “zero point of a dance show”. I managed to isolate 4 elements which make up a dance show in a slightly, I admit, schematic way.
-The body… well, there are two in humanity, woman and man. So I put two naked dancers of different sexes on stage.
-Music. I wanted the most zero point music possible! I thought that a voice would be the least cumbersome and the most corporeal instrument. So I asked an actress to sing nude, on stage. The choice of music conformed to dramaturgic choices which it would be tedious to describe here but all the same I fixed my choice on Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, a work which enabled me to link the piece to the field of dance.
-The light was more of a problem, the zero point of light obviously being the sun… and it would have been quite difficult to perform outside with naked actors on stage in our temperate climates. So I finally chose the zero point of electric light! I therefore asked a naked actress to light the stage with a simple electric torch, which remains the same as the one invented by Thomas Edison.
Gerald Siegmund : Playing on the author's role is an integral part of your pieces. But the more you try to make yourself scarce, the more a certain “Bel esthetic” arises. Could we talk about a certain re-assertion of the author ?
Jérôme Bel : Yes, there is a paradox which remains a big problem for me. The author-actor's attempt to disappear (for as Flaubert said “Emma Bovary is me”, I can say “Frédéric Seguette is me”, the principal actor in all my productions up to The show must go on because I think that with this piece, my “authorist” position has changed, but it's too early to talk about it. The impersonal becoming of the author-actor which was the initial project has been interfered with by the appearance of what you call a “Bel esthetic”. Thinking about this fact, I noticed that what had been operative in those five pieces is that in this wish to disappear through gradually reducing and subtracting the author-actor's presence, it appears to me that the project is to try to isolate an “irreducible human element”. I mean to try to define the human sememe, the sememe being “the minimum unit of meaning”.
Gerald Siegmund : The concept of absence which goes through all your pieces is linked to the concept of death in The last performance . After playing with identity, repetition and difference, you have systematically eliminated or emptied, depopulated even, the stage of dancers and action. What remains is the theatre structure laid bare. All except for a walkman which allows us to hear all the names of the members of the audience in the room. It's a sinister moment because it evokes an obituary column. The death of the choreographer, death of the author, death of the audience in its literal sense because we can't see anything more.
Jérôme Bel : The final scene ofThe last performance could evoke an obituary column only up to the moment when the member of the audience hears his own name and then he understands that it's a list of living people, the list of members of the audience who have reserved their seats for the theatre. It's because the actors have left the stage, and therefore nothing is happening on stage that the spectator is faced with his own oddness, that is to say, a voyeur with nothing left to see ! It is at this price, the disappearance of the actor, that the audience can become aware of its role. I consider that the audience are the co-producers of my pieces. Without them there is no show! It's thanks to them, thanks to their reactions, no matter whether they be understanding or hostile, that I can myself understand what I have done. That's why in The last performance when we were naming all the characters personified on stage: Jérôme Bel, André Agassi, Hamlet, Susanne Linke and Calvin Klein, it seemed obvious to me that we also had to name all the other actors: the people watching. The show lives and therefore dies at each performance. I think the audience are the memory of the performance. They are the witnesses to the death of the show. You know what Heiner Muller said, (I apologise for the quote as I don't think it's accurate): “People come to the theatre to see the actors die.”
Gerald Siegmund : The absence of a show with performance in it gives rise to the audience's mental or psychical show. That always reminds me of Samuel Beckett and his paradoxical consciences which while speaking are always close to dying, but by speaking cannot die.
Jérôme Bel : The reference to Beckett pleases me immensely. His work is a never-ending source of reflection for me. His dramatic writing works at the limits of theatre, and that is what I try to do too, after a fashion. The limit of dance: the choreography in name given by the author or the body in Jérôme Bel . The limit of the author: the (impossible) copy of Susanne Linke or my piece done by Xavier Le Roy. The limit of performance: the void in The last performance and The show must go on. If Beckett wrote The Unnameable , which is the peak of what a writer can aspire to, then I, for my part, am trying to perform the unperformable.
Gerald Siegmund : Accordingly, Xavier Le Roy, your next piece, plays with the absence of the choreographer. You signed yourself as the author of the piece, but it was another person, Xavier Le Roy, who directed it. You present the concept of choreographer as a statement but not as a person. It's like the choreographer's second body which is no longer a biological or natural body in the legal code sense, but a discursive body like a set of rules which can be employed in the sense of creative participation.
Jérôme Bel : Absolutely. What is important is what is said and not who says it. The personality cult is a complete aberration. I admire Xavier Le Roy's work enormously. He is, moreover, one of the most articulate people existing. He accepted my proposition because he could then carry on his research while I, on the other hand, didn't want to do anything. He took over, continued some of my previous endeavours and his results enabled me to go on working and to produce The show must go on . I'm very grateful to him as I am to Susanne Linke when she allowed me to borrow her solo Wandlung . All those “bodies” made it possible for me to go further in understanding my own body.
Gerald Siegmund : If we wanted, we could build up a little meta-history of your pieces. The last performance announced the disappearance of Jérôme Bel and his productions. Xavier Le Roy was a way of going on as another person, like a ghost. The show must go on was like a resurrection with a double meaning: one, the resurrection of the show, and two, the resurrection on stage of the actors and dancers, who after going through a whole lifetime from birth in Tonight to death in Killing Me Softly get up for The show must go on. The show is like Memories from Beyond the Grave which only theatre can make possible. You are still working inside a theatrical production. Is that why you believe in theatre?
Jérôme Bel : I love theatre but I don't believe in it in the religious sense of the term. Let's just say that I mistrust it. Each of my pieces at a given time questions theatre's, the actors' and the author's very legitimacy. However, perhaps it's true that with The show must go on the confrontational relationship with theatre is softened. That's why in this piece the actors “come back to life” after they've been killed! They even come back to life twice. Until this piece I had always considered a show as a merciless struggle with the theatre , the audience, the actors and myself. The theatre as the Sade or Pasolini-type castle in Salo or 120 days in Sodom. This deliberate decision to work “within” the theatre is difficult to explain. My artistic idea is to work on theatrical structures, as I am certain that if theatre still exists, it is because it is representative of society's psychical, social and political structures. There must be parallels between theatrical structure and the structure of the city, the history of theatre and the history of humanity. So it seems to me that my decision to work within theatre makes it possible to reveal hidden problems of society. I apologise that it's not yet a very satisfactory explanation … sorry.
Gerald Siegmund : In The last performance you gave the audience a present by letting it direct the show. In The show must go on your gift to the audience was in working on the relation between stage and theatre. This provoked reactions from the audience, sometimes violent ones, because it enormously levelled the differences between actors and audience: you can see yourself because, in the framework of a theatre, the show is at point zero.
Jérôme Bel : In The last performance, I ask the audience to become dancer-choreographers. In The show must go on all I ask them is to be themselves, to “act” being the audience. One of the challenges of The show must go on was to not dominate the audience. The actors carry out actions that EVERYBODY can do. They don't give proof of any know-how and even less so of any virtuosity on stage. This is so as to create actor/audience equality. Well, it was this equality between actors and audience which provoked such extremely aggressive reactions from members of the audience who obviously prefer identifying with heroes to with the actors of The show must go on . Conclusion : if you don't dominate the audience, they try to massacre you. Fortunately, that doesn't happen every evening and that balance which I talked about earlier does come about on a few rare occasions and those moments, that are possible only in the confines of a theatre, console me for any past and future violence. .