Water under the bridge

Jérôme Bel’s dancers urinated their way to notoriety in Dublin four years ago. His new show is a wee bit different.

16th April 2006





After Jérôme Bel appeared at the International Dance Festival Ireland in 2002, he received a cold goodbye. One audience member sued the festival, claiming he had not been warned that Bel’s performance included nudity and urination. Although the court ruled in favour of the festival, the case became known internationally.

Bel returns to the International Dance Festival Ireland this year with a less contentious performance called Pichet Klunchen & Myself, a duet with a Thai dancer. In another choreographer’s hands this performance might offer observations between eastern and western movement, but because Bel layers his movement, this will likely fall between social commentary and the body politics.

Although he assisted in choreographing the opening ceremony of the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, and has created dances for the Paris Opera Ballet and Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, he prefers to call himself an artist, thinker and performer. His insistence on defying classification annoys critics and thrills those eager for him to cross more boundaries. Bel says he wants to put new issues on stage and find ways to express them.

“Choreography is not a good word for my work,” he says. “I am not choreographing anything. Dance is not my goal. Dance for me is only a subject of studies to try to understand what culture and society are. Dance is a tool of analysis for wider views.”

Born in the South of France but raised in other countries, Bel quickly acquired a broad perspective. After being kicked out of acting class as a teenager for not learning his lines, he took his first dance lessons at the age of 16, going on to work with some of France’s most influential choreographers.

He turned to creating dances with an eye toward movement and theatre, but up to 1994 he spent time reading philosophy and dance history.

He cites the French philosophers Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and the literary critic and social theorist Roland Barthes in helping to shape his art, and takes ideas from philosophy and pop culture.

Heady topics emerge in Bel’s work, but the process often unfolds lightly. In 1997’s Shirtology, he questions the concept of identity. A performer takes off layer after layer of T-shirts, each one revealing a different slogan. Does clothing represent a person’s true essence? Does career? Do their friends? As if holding up a mirror, he gives audiences the responsibility to decide.

In Veronique Doisneau, he investigates hierarchy. The solo was commissioned by the Paris Opera Ballet and created for a corps de ballet dancer just before her mandatory retirement. As Doisneau enters the stage and warms up, she talks about what it feels like to have always been such a crucial part of a group, but so out of the limelight. She demonstrates her proficiency in the lead role of Giselle — which she knows she will probably never perform — while recounting her age, the number of children she has and details of the injury that nearly brought her career to a halt.

In an encounter almost unheard of in ballet, Doisneau reveals herself while the movements she performs become secondary.

Through this personal unmasking, Bel removes the traditional separation between performers and the audience, a concept he repeats in Isabel Torres, created for a Brazilian dancer with Teatro Municipal, and for Priyadarshini Govind in India. Giving dancers a voice sets him apart from other dance creators. He chooses performers carefully.

“Usually the people I am working with are my friends or friends of friends,” he says. “They are not necessarily professional performers. But now, when I work out of Europe, I have very big stars. The dancer I worked with in India is one of the best dancers there. At the end of the performance, some spectators came to see her backstage and they laid down on the floor in front of her. I couldn’t believe it!” Choreographers before Bel have broken down traditional dance constructs, particularly New York’s Judson church group in the 1960s, whose pioneers challenged accepted forms of movement by separating it from spectacle. Trisha Brown, who was part of that movement, approached choreography with formulaic precision, basing her dances on mathematical structures, repeating phrases a set number of times. Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay and their Judson church contemporaries rejected the restraints of classical ballet and codified modern dance, emphasising that having a relationship with the space was what mattered most.

Others such as Merce Cunningham drew new boundaries between music and dance, and in the 1980s choreographers such as Mark Morris awakened audiences by presenting pedestrian movement on trained dancers. Bel goes further by crafting ordinary movements onto real people — then refraining from calling it dance.

He prefers to let audiences classify what he does, which aggravates some who prefer to be fed intellect and delights those who enjoy Bel’s unexpected touches of whimsy. The Show Must Go On received divergent responses when it premiered in Paris in 2001 and in New York last year.

“My problem is always that when we go to a country where we have never performed, where I have no clue about what the audience has seen in dance in that country, we never know what will happen,” Bel says. “Something terrible also can happen if we go to perform in a French city where they only see very conservative performances. This is a question of education.”

The Show Must Go On opens with performers staring at the audience. The Beatles’ Come Together plays in the background. Movement begins and one woman strikes an arabesque to Lionel Richie’s Ballerina Girl. The cast shakes various body parts to I Like to Move It, Move It. The stage goes dark and quiet during Paul Simon’s Sound of Silence, and such literal interpretations to movement continue throughout the evening.

At its premiere, French audiences walked out. Maybe the language barrier caused the uproar (many of the show’s songs are in English) or a matter of taste. New York audiences reacted differently.

“The Show Must Go On comes to us trailing scandal,” wrote the Village Voice critic Deborah Jowitt when it opened in New York. “Spectators in Paris, where he is based, say rude things and walk out; critics flinch and pontificate. The opening night audience at Dance Theater Workshop loved the performance. Go figure.”

Bel is used to such wildly divergent reactions. A dance that garners applause in Geneva may cause bedlam in Israel. One presented in Thailand may be received differently in Korea. He says the greatest compliment someone could give him would not be that they love his work, but that they understand it.

Crossing geographic and cultural boundaries will continue when Bel brings Pichet Klunchen & Myself to the International Dance Festival Ireland, although this time he expects a more moderate reaction from audiences than the last time he visited Dublin.

“I am a little bit worried because what happened last time made so much noise,” Bel says. “Anywhere I go in the world people talk to me about this story. It didn’t affect my work, but people are very concerned with it.”

This year’s performance resulted from a commission by the Singaporean curator Tang Fu Kuen, and Bel performs in it only by chance.

What was supposed to be a solo for Klunchen didn’t get finished in time, so the rehearsal process where Bel sat onstage with his computer and interacted with Klunchen became incorporated in the piece. He says he welcomed the chance to learn a new performing tradition.

“Until three years ago I was working in a western context and then I was invited to work in a non-western context,” Bel says. “This is a new path that I will follow, because the non-western theatrical and choreographic traditions are so rich and sophisticated. I can learn a lot from them.”

Following the performance in Dublin, his itinerary includes Berlin, Frankfurt, Tunis, Paris, Milan, Taiwan, Lisbon, Bern, Bangkok, Singapore, Melbourne and Rome.

Bel offers a preperformance talk before the second show in Dublin, offering a chance to demystify a performance that will be quieter than his last, and drier.

Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.