Jérôme Bel : I don't distinguish between theatre and dance. They're just forms of language.
Clyde Chabot : Do you work on making the signs of performance scarcer, a sort of exploratory literality which enables you to challenge the bases of performance (bodies, music, lighting, words) rather than thinking of them strictly as means to produce a work? What line of thought or what thinkers inspire you to go in this direction ?
Jérôme Bel : The reification of choreographic and theatrical codes was a simple and decisive operation which enabled me to expose the structures of a theatrical event. Out of these structures I've been able to produce a few shows of which one of the characteristics is to question the relevance and legitimacy of theatrical practice, an archaic practice which has been in existence for 2500 years, (I'm speaking of western theatre, whose tradition I belong to), faced with very successful contemporary media such as television, cinema or internet. The consequences of such an operation are that what is principally being challenged in my work is this very theatrical structure. When I talk about theatre, I'm not talking so much about its practice as about the theatre apparatus, that is an architectural and social apparatus. Whether the means be theatrical, choreographic or even operatic is of no importance. What I'm working on is this still, to my eyes, mysterious situation which is that of people sitting in the dark and watching other people standing in the light. People sitting in the dark and pretending to believe what they see but knowing all the while that it's not real. However did anyone think of such a peculiar phenomenon !
The thinkers who have enabled me to work on theatre in this way are mainly Roland Barthes, Hans Robert Jauss, William Forsythe, Marcel Duchamp, Pierre Bourdieu, Claude Lévy-Strauss, Peggy Phelan, Christophe Wavelet, Umberto Eco, Guy Debord, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Rancière, Roselee Goldberg, Gerald Siegmund, Daniel Buren, Judith Butler, Laurence Louppe, Aristote, Jean-Luc Godard, Jan Ritsema, John L.Austin, Julia Kristeva, Bertolt Brecht, Myriam Van Imschoot, Dorothea Von Hantelman, Maurice Blanchot, Diderot, John Cage, Michel Houellebecq, Patrice Pavis, Michel Foucault, and Louis Althusser…
Clyde Chabot : In what way are disappearance and repetition, central themes in The last performance's dramatic processes ?
Jérôme Bel : Repetition in the theatre is interesting precisely because it's impossible there. It's impossible to repeat a performative act. That's the ontology of live performance. That's why I'm interested in repetition: it's one of theatre's limits. The disappearance of the actor, dance, and the show is another of the limits of theatre. If there are no more performances (in both senses of the term) what is left? The person sitting watching in the hall. The person watching is another of my favourite challenges. The theatrical apparatus is activated by three necessary elements: the author, the actor and… the audience. It's through the next operation, the disappearance of performance, that I've been able to reactivate this third element, the member of the audience. Well, sometimes I've reactivated him a bit too hard so that he's got up on the stage and broken with western theatrical convention which my way of working is based on (and so is his) in order to protest loudly and demand his money back… Pity.
Clyde Chabot : Would you be able to remember the different ways you've displaced the idea of author? Are you still going in this direction ?
Jérôme Bel : The concept of the author as it is understood today is incredibly obsolete: inspiration, self-expression, authenticity! Fortunately Marcel Duchamp went through that when he signed and gave the title of ‘ready-mades' to objects that had been bought. Literary criticism (with Kristeva and her brilliant concept of intertextuality) has also worked on this subject. So it was child's play to cause a crisis in the concept of enduring romanticism.
1. Name Given by the author (1994) is the title of my first production. It's the definition of ‘title' given in the Petit Robert dictionary.
2. Jérôme Bel (1995) is the title of my second show. It was “Jérôme Bel : ” so as to subjectivise to a maximum what the show was trying to put over: it's what J.B. thinks, nothing else. There's no truth, no transcendence, just a subjective speech, a few speculations …of the most perilous kind.
3. The last performance (1998) is a copy and paste of other existing shows and performances. There isn't just one author, me, but several.
4. Xavier Le Roy (1999) is a piece which I just signed as mine (and so got the royalties for it) but which was entirely directed, choreographed, and staged from A to Z by my colleague, Xavier le Roy. The important thing is what is said, not who says it.
5. Véronique Doisneau (2004) marks my complete disappearance to the benefit of the subject herself of the piece, Véronique Doisneau, who is its only interpreter. She speaks for herself. I'm just a device to make it possible for her to speak.
Clyde Chabot : How do your two roles of choreographer and performer fit together ?
Jérôme Bel : With difficulty. I hated being a performer for other choreographers, except for Myriam Gourfink, and I've only been one out of financial necessity (one less performer to pay) or in an emergency when one of the performers has missed his plane or is ill. On the other hand, I love doing what I do now: creating shows. Nevertheless, with the piece Pichet Klunchun and myself (2005) I perhaps found a solution to the problem. In fact in this piece ( a discussion between two artists for nearly two hours, with the “myself” being no one other than me), well, I interpret myself, so to speak, which is very very pleasant and allows me to reach a level of performative articulateness which I think I have never reached before now. It's a real discovery for me. I have no other interpreters, there's no middleman between me and the audience. There's almost no performance, but a presentation, since, being the author, I don't hesitate, for example, to change what is said or what happens during the show itself, by trying in each presentation to express more clearly what I think.
Clyde Chabot : Is dramatic composition a deciding preoccupation in your choreographic writing ?
Jérôme Bel : I don't have any choreographic writing because I've never written a single original dance step in all of my short career, which has even so been going on for more than ten years. So to make up for my incapacity to produce dance, I redeem myself by investing in the work of dramatic composition. In fact, the overall writing of a show is without doubt the best way to describe my work. I don't collaborate with any of the professionals normally connected to productions, such as scenographers, costume designers, lighting technicians or composers. I work on all these elements alone or, as most often happens, I simply get rid of them, which doesn't stop me thinking about them, even so. My aesthetics are most often rightfully qualified as minimalist. My productions are mainly based on the dramatic composition of simple actions which are carried out by the performers, amateur ones preferably, in other words on how the meaning is expressed throughout the show, how it develops and what conclusions it draws at the end.
I sacrifice everything to dramatic composition: virtuosity, emotion, pleasure, anything spectacular; my only objective is the thinking that the composition gives rise to. If I have any medium at all, it's dramatic composition, building with the elements and codes of western theatre and dance tradition.
Clyde Chabot : What room is there for theatre in your productions ? And in your personal history as a spectator or a creator ?
Jérôme Bel : As I said earlier, I don't distinguish between theatre and dance as forms of expression; they are only forms of language. I use whichever is most useful to me at a particular time. Theatre is very important to me as a spectator as well as an “art. prod.” as Bourdieu would say (artistic producer). Especially Chekov, Beckett, Pirandello, Klaus Michael Gruber, the Wooster Group, Madeleine Renaud, Christof Schliengensief, Richard Foreman, Marcial di Fonzo Bo, Caroline Peters, Grand Magasin (Pascale Murtin, François Hifler et Bettina Attala), the Kabuki, Forced Entertainment & Tim Etchells, Peter Zadek, Peter Sellars, Peter Brook, Florence Giorgetti, Sotigui Kouyaté, Bernard-Marie Koltes, Youri Progrechnikov, Stuart Sherman, Angela Winkler, Jean-Luc Courcault & Royal de Luxe, the Russian actors in general, Racine, Claude Régy, Judith Magre, John Fosse, Jan Ritsema, Bulle Ogier, Georges Tabori, Nora Krief, Thomas Bernhard, Goat Island, Frank Castorf & the actors of the Volcksbühne (and especially Sophie Rois) & Bert Nauman, Jacqueline Maillan, Christof Marthaler & Ana Wiebrock, Marguerite Duras, Robert Wilson, Elisabeth Mazev, the Katona Josef theater, TG Stan , René Pollesch and so on.
Clyde Chabot : What is the starting point for your choreographic creations? How much writing is there beforehand ? Is there any improvisation in your productions ? What main lines do you work along in rehearsals? What is the nature of your work as a choreographer (what do you ask of the dancers that you work with) ?
Jérôme Bel : For several years it was the limits, the failures and the things left unresolved from the previous piece that provided the motivation for the next one. (I no longer remember what motivated the first piece! It was probably other people's shows that I had seen at the time…) Lately, I've been working more in context because I've been invited by institutions or am in contact with traditions which for me are already the subjects of particular pieces (l'Opéra de Paris, the Burgtheater in Vienna, the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, the Theatre of Khôn dance in Thailand, and the Bharata Natyam in India). But in general, I try to write as much of the piece as possible before rehearsals start, because I hate rehearsing, I hate spending time with the performers. For me the show only exists when the audience is there. Before that it doesn't exist, so I write as much as possible, and the simplest things, so the performers can do them easily and we don't have to redo them. I never use improvisation; I find that pointless. On the other hand, I go on working on tour. I have a repertory company, we go on performing pieces that were done more than ten years ago, and yet at the end of each performance I have notes which can sometimes be endless. What I mainly ask of the interpreters is to understand the overall idea of the piece. The ones who don't understand are obliged to adhere strictly to what I've written down for them to do, which isn't much fun either for them or for me. The ones who do understand work inwardly on ideas which we've defined, develop those ideas and become more and more precise and articulate. That's fascinating. I ask the performers in my shows to think when they're on stage, and to reactivate through their performance the thoughts and discussions we've had while creating the work.
Clyde Chabot : What sort of relationship do you propose to the audience ?
Jérôme Bel : Each production attempts to be a theatrical experience for the audience. I try to make the audience intellectually active, so that they understand, and that they become the co-producer of the show's meaning. As Fassbinder said, “I don't want to be loved, I want to be understood.” I try not to dominate the audience, I try to have an equal relationship with them, which isn't easy because often, if you don't take the lead in the hall, they try to take over by killing the show. I would like there to be an “emancipated audience” in the hall as Jacques Rancière puts it.
Clyde Chabot : What are your current projects?
Jérôme Bel : More rigorism.