texts and interviews > 11.2004 jérôme bel - dance magazine
Naked in the presence of his enemies

In Montpellier some people tried to come onstage and stop the performance." Recalling the experience at a post-performance talk in Dublin two years ago, French choreographer Jerome Bel did not seem bothered by that evening's three quiet walkouts. But within hours, one of the departing patrons, Raymond Whitehead, an antique dealer and amateur actor, was on Irish talk radio complaining about the nudity and act of urination onstage. And this past July the legal action he instigated against the producers, International Dance Festival Ireland, finally came to court.

In spite of a picture of dancer Frederick Saquette folding his scrotum over his penis and the brochure's text "Everything you think dance is, Jerome Bel is not"--Whitehead claimed the festival had breached their contract with him by failing to make clear that Bel's eponymous work involved urination and manipulation of body parts. Suing for 38,000 euros (about $45,000), he also claimed the piece didn't contain "a single step of dance." Dismissing the case, the judge ruled, within the narrow confines of breach of contract, that the festival hadn't negligently misled the public.

Not so in Britain, where the British Advertising Standards Authority recently ruled against Phoenix Dance Company over a poster featuring a nude pas de deux. Because the pas de deux wasn't performed in the otherwise fully-clothed program advertised by the poster, the authority upheld a complaint by an individual claiming he was entitled to see naked dancers.

It has been a while since dance has found itself in the dock in Ireland over issues of immorality. In 1929, one of the first ballet companies to visit the country, an offshoot of Anna Pavlova's troupe, was denounced by several priests when it visited Cork. This led to such small audiences that the company had to write to London for money in order to return to England. Fifteen years later a tutu-clad Swanilda performing for Joan Denise Moriarty's Cork City Ballet was described by one priest as "a semi-nude female figure that has offended against all normal codes of decency."

With the secularization of Irish society, prejudice against dance is less prevalent nowadays. Although Whitehead's case is unusual, it has still raised issues. The International Dance Festival Ireland, which also presented Rosas, the Mark Morris Dance Group, and Josef Nadj, won its case, but it still faces legal fees of around 10,000 euros ($12,000); and because the judge dismissed Whitehead's action, the festival never had an opportunity to put forward its defense.

Festival chairman Dermot McLaughlin, writing in The Irish Times, stated this money could fund one or more elements of the upcoming 2006 festival and questioned the strict application of advertising codes. "Will artists and companies balk at the liability of having to describe their work in terms more suited to consumable goods than to aesthetic intent and experience? Can anyone foresee the day when an arts organization is taken to court for presenting a 'controversial' performance that is not controversial enough for a dissatisfied customer?"

In a letter to The Irish Times, Bel appealed for common sense: "Let's keep our dignity. This is only theater. Everything is fake. The truth is outside the theater in the street, where some situations are really shocking. Who should I sue that allows people to live in the street?"