FOR WHOM THE BEL TOLLS

Writer and producer Karthika Naïr interweaves a trajectory of the works of French choreographer Jérôme Bel with personal recollections of her encounters with them.

Frédéric Seguette in Jérôme Bel’s Shirtology (1997). Photo © Herman Sorgeloos

Lyon, winter 2000. We are queuing to watch choreographer Jérôme Bel’s first piece, Nom donné par l’auteur (Name Given by the Author), star attraction among the hardcore dance aficionados in our art management course. I haven’t heard of him, but then I – fresh from India, and other artistic traditions – have never seen a contemporary dance show before. It begins unobtrusively, with two men – dressed in casual trousers and T-shirts – bringing out Styrofoam cutouts of letters – N, S, E then W – that they place near four corners of the stage, before continuing the to and fro. More props are brought: a small carpet, a canister of salt, a vacuum cleaner, ice-skates, a yellow-and-blue ball, a red torch, a hairdryer, a Petit Robert dictionary, a white stool… oh, and a currency note. Mr. Red T-shirt sits on the stool and holds up the ball. Mr. Blue T-shirt, perched on the upended Hoover, exhibits the dictionary. They place them back on the carpet, look down serenely, then Blue presents the currency note to his partner, and Red, in turn, pours out some salt. The next minutes unfold as a parade of all the objects, the ripples of action mild but defined: salt poured on the carpet in clear vertical stream, the torch flicked on and off, held before flipped pages of the Petit Robert… I should be bored but there’s something almost hypnotic about the unhurried movements of the two men, this strange introduction of the inanimate that surrounds – and sometimes governs – our daily lives. Still, there’s a question drilling holes in my brain. I tug at my companion’s sleeve and hiss, Where are the dancers? He replies, sotto voce: Think of the objects as dancers. The penny drops, in slow motion.

We can thank – or blame – the 1992 Winter Olympics for Nom donné par l’auteur, and, perhaps, for Jérôme Bel’s subsequent trajectory. A trained dancer from the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine in Angers, Bel had worked with a slew of French choreographers between 1985 and 1991: Angelin Preljocaj, Régis Obadia, Caterina Sagna … most of whom were key figures in the “young French dance” wave of the 80s, rich in formally inventive choreography. Then came the Winter Olympics of Albertville where he assisted choreographer Philippe Découflé, who helmed the opening and closing ceremonies of the games. With the money he earned on that assignment, Bel took a sabbatical. Sequestering himself in a Parisian apartment, he spent two years devouring books by philosophers – Marcel Duchamp, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault and his favourite, Roland Barthes – as he mulled over a niggling thought: What does it mean to make a performance? [1]

Rehearsing with dancer Frédéric Seguette in his living room, and working with a clutch of domestic, everyday objects, Jérôme Bel found a response. He pared performance down to its vertebrae:

– an author
– an audience
– time
– space
– passage through the last two elements, generating meaning.

"Think of the objects as dancers." Bel's Nom donné par l'auteur (1994). Photo © Herman Sorgeloos

This, then, was what Bel defined as the essential stage apparatus or ‘dispositif’, and set out to make, eschewing all effects of mise en scène (lighting, costumes, sets) except the compass points – ironically, ones usually absent in theatre’s neutral black box environment. And by using objects that were deployed into space, across time (the piece lasts a good hour), instead of dancers, he reified the key concepts of choreography in Nom donné par l’auteur, showed us an algorithm of dance, as it were.

NOT FOR BEL, ESPECIALLY IN THAT INITIAL PHASE, THE CONFLATION WITH VISUAL ART, OR HAPPENINGS IN MUSEUMS AND ART GALLERIES.

For all its abstractness and its seeming avoidance of dance, Nom donné par l’auteur is the most meticulously choreographed, knitted, of all of Bel’s pieces, as he himself admits [2]. It’s sometimes like watching a miniature ballet on a living room floor, surprising but droll, with ice-skates as mutinous black swans; the magic of performance demystified, democratised, and theatre relocated within a geographic, earthly grid. It may be a reason why – despite contentious reactions when it premiered in 1994 – the piece toured for well over a decade.

Bel was also obdurate in the positioning of his work: he would only present Nom donné par l’auteur in theatres, on stages, or as a part of dance festivals. Not for him, especially in that initial phase, the conflation with visual art, or happenings in museums and art galleries – platforms adopted by many of his contemporaries. Nom donné par l’auteur coincided with the rise (or rather the gradual mainstreaming) of conceptual dance in Europe – a movement later reductively termed “non-dance” by a French journalist [3], coinage Bel calls “an obscenity” [4]. Raimund Hoghe in Düsseldorf, Maria LaRibot in Madrid, Jonathan Burrows in the UK, Bel’s compatriots Boris Charmatz and Xavier LeRoy – several of whom, like Bel, had been dancers in the 80s – had begun presenting their work in various parts of the continent. They strove to reshape or dissolve the traditional forms of dance, melding it with video, installation, lectures, and audience involvement; questioning and expanding its vocabulary; sometimes taking it outside the proscenium space into the preserve of other arts. Jérôme Bel, however, while patently uninterested in movement, in dancing, so to say, remained almost obsessively keen on dissecting and sharing the innards of dance, its structure, its essential requirements, its effect. It is an interest that does not seem to have waned in all these years, just taken unexpected turns. After Nom donné par l’auteur, a piece where the living, breathing dancers appeared no more than tools to facilitate choreography, he turned his gimlet gaze on the dancer’s body in his next work, the self-titled Jérôme Bel (1995) which sought to create a zero point of dance:

– a body
– light
– music

Bel inferred these were his lowest common denominators and set out to create a minimalist template for staging a dance piece. For lighting, given the unavailability of sunlight inside theatres, he chose the first electric source: Edison’s light bulb, to be held by Gisèle Pelozuelo, one of the performers, and moved along the stage to light up the action. Music came from the human voice: Yseult Roch, an amateur singer, hummed Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on stage.

Instead of one body, Bel selected two, one male, one female, to complete the archetype: those of Frédéric Seguette (a staple in early Bel-ville) and Claire Haenni. And after delving into the progression of time and space on stage in Non donné par l’auteur, this time he examined the passage of time and space on the human body, the dancer’s body. Chalk, lipstick and bodily fluids provided sets and props. In opening and closing acts, they served both to inscribe and erase the names of all the people associated with the piece (Igor Stravinsky, Thomas Edison, the cast and crew…) – all, that is, except Jérôme Bel, who bore his in the title – on the dark, bare wall upstage.

Body - light - music. The zero points of dance as elements in Jérôme Bel (1995). Photo © Herman Sorgeloos

Pantin, January 2005. Jérôme Bel is programmed at the Centre national de la danse as part of Transformes, an international festival that turns the spotlight on current mutations in dance through a symposium, shows, lecture-demonstrations, films… Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, Jérôme Bel is its flagship event. As one of the production managers of the festival (though not of Jérôme Bel), I flit between venues, sorting out spec sheets, getting contracts signed, coaxing hotels for early check-ins; there isn’t time to sit down and really watch a show. But this one can’t be missed, insist senior colleagues who remember the furore it caused back in the day (including an assault on Bel by an enraged viewer in Marseille and a court case in Dublin).

IT’S THE QUIETNESS OF THE PIECE THAT DRAWS ME IN, THE ABSENCE OF ALL EXHIBITIONISM – ODD, PERHAPS, WITH SO MUCH NUDITY ON DISPLAY.

et it’s the quietness of the piece that draws me in, the absence of all exhibitionism – odd, perhaps, with so much nudity on display. In the penumbra of Edison’s bulb, the bodies – disparate, old, young, imperfect, de-eroticised – are luminous with dignity, with functionality. There is not a shadow of the in-your-face provocativeness of cocks and cunts one sees with Jan Fabre, not even the joyous Dionysian, damaged innocence of Dave St. Pierre’s dancers. Jérôme Bel feels like a testament to the primacy of the body, to its distinctiveness even when shorn of all distinction. It is cartography of the lived experience – dates, scars, emotions, markers of memory and value – on the dancer’s physical frame, of the world’s intrusion on her bare skin. I do feel for the crew handling the show, though, especially the stage manager who has to wipe up all that urine every evening, and who has begun to carp – only half in jest – that he needs a “prime de pipi” on this one, instead of the usual prime de feu, the bonus paid for onstage work.

Copying Susanne Linke, Le Dernier Spectacle (1998). Photo © Herman Sorgeloos

THEY RESEMBLE A SERIES OF SEMIOTIC HAIKUS, SUGGESTING THAT WE WEAR THE CONSTRUCTION OF OUR IDENTITIES – QUITE LITERALLY – ON OUR SLEEVES.

With Shirtology (1997) Bel turned visibly playful. The piece involves an extremely slow (and chaste) striptease by Frédéric Seguette, who sheds T-shirt after T-shirt (around 30 in all) with long, deliberate pauses between each unpeeling. Seguette’s pokerfaced lugubriousness banishes any suggestion of ‘tease’, and reduces many viewers to helpless laughter. The laughter is also induced by the messages on the T-shirts. Ranging from key dates in pop history and commercial logos and slogans, to messages that seemed specifically designed for the show, they resemble a series of semiotic haikus, suggesting that we wear the construction of our identities – quite literally – on our sleeves.

Bel returned to his excavation of the various components of dance with Le Dernier Spectacle (1998), Xavier LeRoy (2000) and The Show Must Go On (2001). Le Dernier Spectacle (The Last Performance) was his self-professed attempt to “finally make dance”. Since he felt he couldn’t make dance himself, Bel decided to “borrow” existing work, the work of choreographers he had admired for long (Pina Bausch, Trisha Brown…), and then “copy–paste” them in a show. But that was easier said that done, as he discovered a quagmire of authorisations, French copyright laws and violations to wade through. And to his great disappointment, most of the choreographers he approached refused his request.

Susanne Linke alone found it an intriguing prospect, and authorised him to use her solo Wandlung, set to Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, as part of his new work. In The Last Performance, Bel and the other performers (each donning a white slip à la Linke) reprised Wandlung four times. With recycling, or appropriation of movement as its central conceit, the piece also underscored the impossibility of a perfect copying act: each performer’s rendition was inevitably different, and, inevitably, a transient act never entirely replicated even by the same performer.

Having delivered his “swansong” with The Last Performance, and rather flamboyantly at that, Bel felt he couldn’t go and make another work immediately. But the concept of authorship – one of the crucial pillars of his performance/dance apparatus – that he had spun around in The Last Performance begged to be jostled at little more. So he invited fellow choreographer Xavier Le Roy to make a piece for him in Bel-esprit, with the caveat that it should be registered in Bel’s name. Le Roy responded enthusiastically and the result was the solo Xavier Le Roy (2000), made openly by Le Roy in Bel’s name. Officials at SACD – the French society for the protection of authors’ rights – could be pulling their collective hair out with this one.

Bel signed his “comeback” with the Bessie-Award-winning The Show Must Go On (2001)[5], an artful, seemingly ingenuous reflection on the expectations of a theatre-going audience. One DJ, twenty amateur dancers and a playlist of eighteen songs that half the world would be intimately – sometimes painfully – familiar with, from Tonight (West Side Story) and Let the Sun Shine In (Hair) to Céline Dion’s My Heart Will Go On, with the performers on stage haphazardly dancing/enacting/singing the title or snatches of each song. It may manifestly be the most staged of Bel’s work, with light and sound effects all following the cue of the songs – total darkness during Tonight and Imagine, a trapdoor opening up for the performers during Yellow Submarine, and the sound switched off after the phrase “the sound of silence” in Simon & Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence –but it is one that obliterates all notion of virtuosity or technique as requirements for performance.

Artful staging, artless performance: The Show Must Go On (2001). Photo © Mussacchio Laniello

Somewhere around this point came a call from Brigitte Lefèvre – then the director of the Paris Opera Ballet (and the Angela Merkel of the dance world) – who invited Jérôme Bel to make a piece with her dancers. Bel initially asked to work with their “worst ballerina”,[6] a demand that unsurprisingly did not find favour. Eventually, they found a median solution: a middle-rung dancer, a sujet talented enough to have played the parts of principals. A dancer at the fag end of her career, whose self-portrait – the eponymous Véronique Doisneau (2004), directed by Jérôme Bel – would elicit universal admiration, and kickstart a new phase in Bel’s explorations around dance. And Véronique Doisneau would be the beginning – a very late one, all things considered – of the use of text in the Bel-world: the choreography of the spoken word.

For the next ten years, in diverse contexts, he would focus on the life of the dancer, on his or her perception and personal experience of dance: in Pichet Klunchun and Myself (2005), Lutz Förster and Cédric Andrieux (both 2009), for instance. It is an initiative that underlines Bel’s ambivalence about dance, counterpointing his fascination for the skills, the virtuosity and the drive inherent to the discipline with his rejection of the same. In a sense, even his later collaborative or group work – whether 3Abschied (2010) with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker or Disabled Theatre (2012) with the actors of Theater HORA – though emphatically different in tone, still hinged on the performers’ (public and shared) recollections of their own desires, and of the success or failure in achieving those aspirations.

Opéra Garnier, Paris. October 2005. Véronique Doisneau appears on stage, carrying a bottle of water, shoes and a tutu. She looks long and searchingly at the audience, then speaks. It is a soft, measured voice, neutral even when it shares the most personal of details: the injury that nearly stopped her career when 20, the surgery and long recovery, her retirement in two weeks’ time, the half-lifetime spent within these lofty walls. She then moves on to her career at the Opera, states matter-of-factly there was never any question of her being made a principal, she was not talented enough or was perhaps too fragile physically. States it with grace and heartbreaking simplicity. But this is not the portrait of a weeping willow. Doisneau is simply enumerating the facts of her life. She moves to her private-professional joys: dancing the pas de trois of Kingdom of Shades from Rudolf Nureyev’s La Bayadère, for one. She puts on her point shoes and demonstrates the delight, the challenge, to us. Then removes them to perform Merce Cunningham’s Points in Space – and explains the precise wonder of working with Merce, of getting to listen to the breath of her fellow dancers. There is just one moment of pure, if controlled, loathing: for nineteenth-century ballets that use the corps de ballet as a human décor. Marius Petipa’s Swan Lake, in particular. Doisneau shows us, through 10 agonising minutes mostly of near-immobility, what it means to reduce oneself to scenery to make ballet’s most spectacular moments come alive. She tells us what she would have loved to do: play male roles, and play the lead role in Giselle. What she loved doing, night after night: curtseying to the audience, in any of three accepted ways. And suits the action to the word.

The facts of the dancer's life: Véronique Doisneau (2005). Photo © Anna Van Kooij

It ends all too soon, this performance, a mere 30 minutes later. The breakdown of the fourth wall between the performer and the audience is complete. Bel and Doisneau leave me more intensely aware than with the most intrusive nudity or violence on stage, more vulnerable. After a decade of demanding his performers be no more than conduits for the concept, Bel – in an unforeseeable yet characteristic volte-face – now turns the spotlight, incisively yet with discomfiting gentleness, on the personhood, the quiddity, of the dancer. It’s unfathomable, but for the first time, for the very first time, I feel grateful to Jérôme Bel – for intimating that there is a great deal more to dancing on stage than the staging of dance.

Author Credit

Karthika Naïr is a Paris-based dance producer and programmer. Author of Bearings (a poetry collection), The Honey Hunter/Le Tigre de Miel (a children’s book) and DESH: memories inherited, borrowed, invented (a dance diary), she was also principal scriptwriter on DESH, choreographer Akram Khan’s award-winning solo from 2011.

Acknowledgement

The author would like to thank the librarians and archivists of the Centre national de la danse (Pantin) for their help and generosity.

Show Time: Disabled Theatre, Jérôme Bel’s collaboration with Theater HORA, is at Dance Umbrella, 14–15 October 2014. Details here.

Footnotes

[1] In conversation with Christophe Wavelet in Catalogue raisonné, produced by Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers with R.B./Jérôme Bel and the Centre national de la danse, January 2005.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dominique Frétard, in Le Monde (May 6, 2003) according to Emails 2009-2010, Jérôme Bel Boris Charmatz. Les Presses du Réel, 2013.

[4] In a post-show talk at the Centre national de la danse, Season 2004-2005.

[5] The movement of embodied thought: the representational game of the stage zero of signification in Jérôme Bel by Una Bauer. Performance Research. Routledge, March 2008.

[6] Conversation between Daniel Buren and Jérôme Bel, interviewed by Jean-Max Colard for www.danceonpaper.com (translation by Peter Witrak).