An Eloquent Dance: Jérôme Bel

by Élisabeth Lebovici


For many visitors at the dOCUMENTA (13) who attended Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater at the Kaskade (a former cinema built in Kassel in the 1950’s), the performance was a lasting shock. Together with Theater Hora, a troupe of mentally handicaped professional actors from Zurich, Bel has pursued his project of a radical critique of illusionistic spectacle and spectatorship which has developed, for instance, through works such as Shirtology (1997), The Show Must Go On (2001) and “theater documentaries” such as Véronique Doisneau (2004), Pichet Klunchun and Myself (2005), Cédric Andrieux (2009). In conversation with Elisabeth Lebovici, Jérôme Bel addresses the unspoken forces that constructs the norms of performance.


LISABETH LEBOVICI: Included in dOCUMENTA (13), your piece Disabled Theater with Theater HORA, a company of actors with Down Syndrome, has been circulating now for some time. I’m interested in the repetition here, in relation to the supposed unpredictability projected by our world onto the performance of the disabled. How many performances have you done, and what have you learned so far from the repetitions of the piece?

JERÔME BEL: It went to Bern, Brussels, Kassel, Avignon… we did a great number of shows, particularly in Kassel, where Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (the artistic director) requested we perform three times a day, which is quite unusual. Actually I have never had a request like that before. The time frame of an exhibition like documenta challenges the one of the theatrical apparatus—whether theater or dance—which most generally takes place in the evening and only once. But Carolyn thought it should happen during the daytime, and I liked the idea, because it would bring the piece closer to the artworks. When she insisted on three shows a day, I thought it would be impossible. But then I called Zurich, asked Theater HORA what they thought about performing three times a day, and they just loved it. So the context of contemporary art and that of disability corresponded. And although we had agreed with Carolyn that the work was unfit for the White Cube and required a theater as its space (for which she restored the half-ruined Kaskade Kino, an old cinema by Paul Bode, the brother of documenta’s founder), these contexts were already destroying the tradition of the performing arts. Such modes of expression, dance especially, are physically demanding. For many years, though, my theater hasn’t been demanding at all. I hadn’t thought about performing in the afternoon or staging productions more than once a day. The change of contexts exposes one’s habits and highlights the traditional methods one has adopted without question; it ruptures the repetition of such tropes to challenge their ‘essential’ grip on the medium. So when we told the Festival d’Avignon about Kassel, they said that they, in turn, wanted two performances a day, so we scheduled one more in the afternoon. The eleven actors were very happy to be on stage, they all wanted to be in every show and they were excellent throughout the three daily performances, never losing energy. For me as a viewer, to watch the performance three times a day was an intense experience.

EL: Did you watch every single show?

JB: No. Once trust had been established, I went to look at the works of other artists in the event. Showing a piece is tiring for me too, it expends all my psychic energy, because it isn’t just about watching. Even if I produce the piece, I still don’t know the unconscious reason for some of my choices. Without this tension between the performance and myself, there is no art, I think.

EL: Could one say that you imported into the theatrical performance some kind of continuous play, as in the old days of the movies?

JB: In the theater, the time frame is usually imposed by the author, the director, or the piece. In an exhibition, the spectators can leave whenever they wish: by some implicit contract you are free, as an individual, to make your decision. But still, as with theater, this alienation persists. I notice that a lot of people from the contemporary art scene often complain about the pressure of such duration. Theater is the art of time and this is where I work. I make time visible. For instance in Disabled Theater, I ask that the actors spend one minute facing the audience and the program states that the show will last one hour and thirty minutes. I can’t go into a theater without knowing how long the piece will be. I want to know if we are running a sprint or a marathon. There is a big difference in one’s investment if the show lasts fifty minutes or four hours: if one gets bored after ten minutes of a fifty-minute piece, it becomes a problem, but if the work lasts four hours, then there’s more space for something that might come… I have to deal with this critical question when working in an art context. For instance in Kassel there wasn’t a full house for all shows; I could have easily limited them to two performances per day. But then the piece wouldn’t be offered the way the art is. The power of an exhibition relies on this continuous potential—and even more for a collection, the Louvre’s for example, where the artworks have been there for more than a hundred years and will remain there for hundreds of years to come. A theater play doesn’t function the same way: you have to catch it. Furthermore, you won’t see it again, because it’s live. And then it is dead, vanished.

EL: Again, concerning the framework of dOCUMENTA (13): it was easy to notice that the exhibition was bound up with the concept of war and the effects it has on the body, with the corollary of “reconstruction”, exemplified by Kader Attia’s installation Repair from the Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures—it shows wooden faces carved by sculptors from Dakar, based on a series of prints of the “Gueules Cassées”, the soldiers who were severely disfigured during World War I: these monstrous faces couldn’t be restored to their initial condition, but like the African masks also featured in the installation, they were patched up.

JB: In fact, documenta is a postwar situation. I was made to realize this when I was sent to Kabul by Carolyn, which is supposedly in a postwar situation too, though there are still heavy bombings. Arnold Bode founded documenta after the 2nd World War. When we moved the piece from Kassel to Avignon, I also realized that Jean Vilar had founded the Festival d’Avignon in the exact same year, 1947, and with the same beautiful conceit: rebuilding through culture.

EL: How do you conceive of Disabled Theater in relation to this postwar cultural reconstruction? As repair, reconstruction, rehabilitation?

JB: I don’t rehabilitate. The postwar platform that Carolyn meant to open takes place in Germany, where we all know that the Nazis tried to exterminate handicapped people. Indeed, Disabled Theatre was questioning this platform. I don’t try to rehabilitate. My operation appears to contradict this. That’s clearly why people attacked the piece: I received many hate messages on Facebook, accusing me of being some kind of monster.

EL: For doing what?

JB: For exposing the actors the way they are. I don’t want them to be like us, to be nicer, more clever, or better actors. They can do that. But I’m interested in their disability. My question is: what can we learn from them? Art has to be useful for the viewer. It stands, as Deleuze would say, as a “force de vie” (force of life). I can’t stand cynicism in art. Pina Bausch, who wasn’t the easiest choreographer, always had this “force de vie” in her pieces, and that meant you left the theater with more strength than ever. This is also at stake in Disabled Theater, which has already changed many of my perspectives on life and art, and a number of my attitudes when dealing with control. Formally, my paradigm was that life is chaos and art is order. I was a control freak with my performers, alienating them from the everyday. But with mentally disabled people I couldn’t and didn’t have any control. This obligation to release my control was, although scary, very liberating for me.

EL: So one of the outcomes of Disabled Theatre was this release?

JB: When I got the invitation to work with Theater HORA in Zurich, at first I refused: I felt it would be much too complicated. I didn’t have any expertise, my entourage was scared that it would be too slippery. But when out of curiosity I asked for DVDs of the performances of those actors, I experienced a big emotional shock. And the piece is about this shock, about what happened. Of course there is a deep unconscious connection allied with a consciousness of my own weaknesses, which has always been a topic of my work. Probably because I come from Pina Bausch and Pina, at least until 1989, was all about representing things with which people cannot deal. Pina Bausch’s work, too, was based on war and coming from this cataclysm. When it went through a historical shift in 1989, it took me and my friends ten years to understand, as witnesses, how much the reunification of Germany had been a catalyst for this transformation, as an unconscious, political thread. My education in dance and my choices as a director led me to know that this gesture, one second before that other gesture, composes a totally different interpretation with the punctuation of unfilled time. Throughout the years, I realized how incredibly powerful this knowledge was, measuring what it implied amidst the audience, all silent or all laughing at the same time. This is the power of the “mise-en-scène.” You can’t achieve this in life. But on stage, you can be precise and reconstruct life, and that’s what I call the order. I couldn’t do this with the mentally disabled actors. They were resisting. If I said to one of them: “look a little bit higher, because of the way the audience is seated in this theater,” he or she would watch the ceiling. I just had to let go: and what happens, happens. Some of them come on stage and for the first scene, when I ask them to stand one minute in front of the audience, they simply don’t act like any other professional performer, who would find the “correct” angle and bodily stance. Some look at their feet, or won’t place themselves center stage. I love the fact that it constitutes a provocation to the language of theater. I can’t alienate them according to my rules. Through working with them, my supposedly “famous” enterprise of deconstructing performance is debased in turn. I’m realizing that there were many rules I wasn’t aware of. Standing at the center and looking at the audience is part of this “normalcy.” This unspoken straightness appears through Disabled Theater. The title constitutes a program, perhaps a new aesthetics which might be useful to better understand our relation to the world.

EL: What you ask the performers in Disabled Theater to do—your questions to them, if you prefer, which are displayed publicly during the performance—such as standing on stage for one minute, naming themselves, stating what they do, etc., sounds like a kind of “coming out.” But more generally, this practice of “coming out,” often used in sexual politics, seems to resonate in all your work with theater and dance. Whether you are working with Véronique Doisneau, Cédric Andrieux, Pichet Klunchun or the actors of Theater HORA, you seem to repeat the operation of asking your performers to come out. And perhaps this is also what you are asking the theater itself to do: to come out?

JB: I’ve never thought about it this way but, yes, of course! My theater has always been in a way a coming out of performers. This is what I do when asking an anonymous ballerina in the Corps de Ballet or the Opera, who has no public identity, to come on stage and say as her first words: “My name is Véronique Doisneau.” The piece is titled with her name. Giving representation and speech to dancers, who are mostly silent, has always been the first artistic operation of my investigation with theater. With mentally disabled actors, whose cognitive processes are altered, the articulation of speech is not too good but what makes me happy is that their dancing is so eloquent. For twenty years, I felt dance was not eloquent enough for me, and I moved to speech, using the discursive. With the disabled, the semantics are weak but dance starts to be eloquent again. It connects me again to dance. That was a big surprise for me!

EL: There is an issue of translation in the performance, which relates, in my interpretation, to the issues of translation between the unspoken languages of “normalcy” and “disability”.

JB: We need a translator to confront alterity. Theater HORA is Swiss-German, so I used this obstacle in the show to emphasize the communication question: we have to work with and to use mediation. Since the beginning, there have been translators from French, English, Japanese or Spanish to German. Onstage, the process of translation uses time and provides distance, whether the translator is speaking for the audience or for the actors. As a link between them, the speech of the translator also articulates something I’m adamant about: art needs distance, in order to produce an arch of energy, which is necessary to catch what the performer is doing.

EL: Autism activist Amanda Baggs has posted an iconic film on Youtube entitled In my Language, composed of two parts, one in which she addresses the world in her “native” terms, and the other, where she uses a computer voice translating into our tongue. She clearly refers to the asymmetry of power and representation in which disabled people have to strive to alter their communication style to fit the so-called “correct” model, and attempts to shift her marginalized situation into a position of knowledge.

JB: I remember a science-fiction novel where a few humans are spotted because they wear a watch. We are all disabled, we need an object to tell us time. In this conversation we are using a recorder, which memorizes for us what we are saying, as we are not able to remember everything we say ourselves! Nobody from the audience would stand for one minute, as they do in Disabled Theater. Down syndrome is an impairment only within a particular social environment, the environment in which we happen to live.

EL: Have you been influenced by Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the “minor,” when they ask for instance, “What Is a Minor Literature”?

JB: Very much. I could use their idea of “writing like a dog digging a hole, a rat digging its burrow. And to do that, finding his own point of underdevelopment, his own patois, his own third world, his own desert,” in order to explain my project. What is at the heart of my theater is the idiosyncrasy of each performer. My work could not exist without this concept of individuation and its becoming on stage.

EL: Watching the actors dance is a moment of empowerment, elation and emotion, but there’s a continuation, embodied by your last question to the performers, when you ask them to comment on their performance. Is this when you write like a dog?

JB: It certainly enabled me to finish the piece, which went strikingly swiftly for the first three scenes: 40 minutes of the show were completed in three days. I was a bit reluctant to ask the actors to talk about their disability, but after talking with the director of the company I was encouraged to do so; I already knew that they didn’t follow the rules and if they didn’t want to answer the question, they wouldn’t. Then we ran the piece through. They danced. But after the dance, what I tried was helpless. It lasted weeks. I asked them to listen to contemporary music: Kurtag, Stockhausen, Schönberg, Mahler’s 3rd Symphony with lyrics from Nietzsche… I showed them videos of Pina Bausch, of Trisha Brown, all of the most sophisticated artworks which are so important to me. I tried to give them my references, and they were not interested. They were alienated. I was certain they would understand, but I was stuck. On one of those particularly difficult days, where I had them listen again to some of my choices, I asked them finally: “but what do you think of this work?” And then they said what you are hearing in the performance. I didn’t change anything. This pattern continues throughout the piece, I didn’t intervene with the dancing either. On the contrary: it is their structure, their choreography. And with that last question, the critique finds its place within the piece, as well as the questions the audience will have about the consciousness of the disabled. Yes, they are aware, they know what they are doing, they are all different, they all have their idea of what we are doing together. The show is all about difference. Some are smarter, some are sexier, some are tougher… But what appeared in Avignon were audiences not accepting differences amongst themselves “Why do they clap after one dance,” someone asked and I had to say “Well, it’s the same thing, they’re different, you’re different. You too are different, maybe you cry and somebody else is laughing in front of the same movement.” The issue is how not to suffer from difference.

EL: You seem to push away the binary representation systems, the ones that reinforce norms, and which have been criticized by queer theory: the difference between sexes, or between ability and disability…

JB: Alterity stands within the Caucasian Western heterosexual family, which doesn’t know how to deal with it because this relation hasn’t been worked through by society. This is what is at stake: the lack of representation and the uncomfortable relation to this lack, whether it is the one of the disabled or the one of the norm. There is also another layer to this problem: in the academic field, you can find some writings by disabled people in the emerging discipline of “Crip Theory”, but you will find much less material from mentally impaired people. How can you learn about somebody without the knowledge of his or her reality? The translator I propose is dance.


Originally published on Mousse 35 (October–November 2012)


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