Throughout his career started in 1994 with Nom donné par l’auteur, choreographer and philosopher Jérôme Bel has challenged theatrical conventions in contemporary dance.
Flash Art talked with him during his recent stay in Los Angeles, where he presented the seminal piece The Show Must Go On (2001).
Is there anything you would like to talk about today?
I have so much to say, I don’t know from where to start; but I’m lazy, so I would prefer that you give me an idea to start with.
When you say that you have so many things to say, it implies that we can expect many creations to come. Are you talking through your shows?
No. It means that I’m not serene. I have many problems. And in a way, to express them is to try to think about them. But this is not related to a specific project. A project is the result of a sudden connection — a desire from somebody, a meeting, an encounter — that will become a work. And then the work will be good if the meeting, the encounter, is connected to my obsessions and feelings. This is how it works. And this is why sometimes it fails.
Failure is an important part of your work.
Yes, I have no problem to talk about failure. I do experimental theater; sometimes my work is not satisfying. Sometimes I follow a line or something I discover, sometimes I dive into the unknown or something more familiar. I identify myself with experimentation. I try a lot. It means I don’t know what I will find at the end. Sometimes I don’t find the solution. Maybe the result will cross with my obsession, and so I try to find a solution, the best solution. Sometimes I lose myself and it’s not clear and I do the opposite of what I wanted to…
When do you start thinking about how the audience will read your work?
First of all, I think about me, then about the performers, then the audience. I have first to convince myself that what I’m doing is interesting. Then I have to persuade the performers that it is not total bullshit. Then I think about how the audience will take it, and I can change it, according to the references it raises. The third layer of work is very important. Then we start to perform, and there is the real impact. I sit behind the audience and I can see how people react, and I can feel if they understand or not, if it is too long, or if it is too easy. I have to adapt each performance during the tour to how people react. Then, the problem, especially since we travel very much, is that people react differently in each city. Culturally speaking it is very difficult. For instance, the reception of Disabled Theater (2012) in New York was very different from the reception of the European audience.
In New York people took it in a more severe way. There was more tension in the audience; people did not really relax. In Europe, they relax faster, and it is important to relax to understand the show, because I try to appease and pacify the relationship between the audience and the issue of disability, without guiltiness or shame.
You have always been very loyal to theater, to the framework of the black box. I see Disabled Theater as an ultimate declaration of love to theater, because you go straight to the heart of the question of what is a performance, and what is a performer, forcing the audience to identify with something unfamiliar.
One of the foundations of this piece is the identification of the spectator with the performers.
The identification doesn’t automatically exist at the beginning of the performance. It’s a long process.
You don’t want to identify with disability. You prefer to identify with Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. That’s why they are so powerful! But when it’s about mentally disabled people, you don’t want to establish a relationship. I knew it since the beginning, and this is what I was interested in. I believe we have to be able to identify with an alternative reality as well. The world would be kinder if we could understand everyone, not only the beautiful and powerful ones. Today, and maybe since forever, we don’t perform disability; we perform success, skill, superiority. And this doesn’t represent the reality we are living in.
Since Nom donné par l’auteur (1994), you’ve stayed away from the representation of these clichés.
I have never been interested in representing success. Late capitalism is just the promotion of beauty, richness, power, all these stupid issues. I can’t get out if it, I don’t want to accept it. I’d love to accept it; my life would be easier, so much easier…
Representing the ordinary is the very core of your research.
I don’t want people to be different from what they really are. The ideal of challenge is to me too old; it is related to the Siècle des lumières, the belief that mankind can progress, and that progress will be the main goal of humanity.
You are currently working with French actress Jeanne Balibar on a new project with amateur actors from the Parisian suburbs, trying to deal with the subject, and the problem, of multicultural society. Should we expect a politically charged project?
It is never direct, for me. Agitprop art is always a problem for me. I can take it as a member of the audience, but as a creator, I don’t dare to say things directly; it always has to go through theater and aesthetics.
Again, you are very loyal to theater, whereas many of your colleagues in this moment are trying to make a tabula rasa of it.
At the beginning of my career, many people and critics said I was doing tabula rasa. For instance, I had many problems with the audience.
But you have never been a destroyer.
That’s true. I feel connected to the tradition, and I’m aware that the history should go on and that our reality is different today. But I don’t reject my ancestors. I reject a lot, but not Brecht, not Aristotle. I have no problem with them. I take the history and I use it to create new tools and produce ideas, and I deal with it. It would be so immature just to kill the father and stop there.
After being invited to dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012, you have reached a sort of rising-star status in the contemporary art world. Is your name suddenly being exploited?
This is a question related to this new trend we are currently witnessing of inviting dancers to museums and biennials over the last three to four years. Even commercial galleries tried to catch me. They wanted, for instance, to sell my t-shirt because I danced in it. There are no limits. But I can’t do it. My work has been produced with public funding. All I produce comes from public institutions — it’s publicly funded and it belongs to everyone. I give my videos to museums so that everyone can have them via a public collection, at the Pompidou, the Tate Modern. My work belongs to all citizens.
Do you see more gallerists, curators or artists at your shows?
No, not at all. But that’s exactly what we are working on right now. We are trying to understand if this mutual interest, this operation, will be interesting for both of us. Maybe it will be a failure. The art world needs to be educated about dance, and this is what is happening right now. It’s an ongoing discussion. There are curators who ask me to talk about my work, and this is what I’m interested in — not to talk with curators who just say: “I want your videos. How much is this one?” Institutions like MoMA, the Walker Art Center, they really want to talk about it and learn. This new situation makes me think, and I can’t resist because I like things that make me reflect. For now, we are in the middle of the research. It’s exciting, because we are pushed in another context, and we produce other questions. Will we be able to answer in a satisfying way? So far, Xavier Leroy found a very satisfying answer with his retrospective at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona. But I will not become a visual artist, and I’m not interested in selling objects. As for now, the art world is a very big disappointment. Dancers and actors are different from artists in the art world. I’m bored with people from the art world. As a performer, we are different, and I love to be with actors. It’s more fun. And we will never become rich — this is a big difference! Our work is based on community, being a group, a company, whereas artists are much more alone and individualist, because of their practice. The group is important to me, but in the art world the group is a disability.
Disabled Theater has marked a change in the way you work. I was thinking about how it was different for you to not have control of the performers. Over your entire career, if there was one constant characteristic in your performances, it was that you always asked your performers to execute very specific, clear and practiced actions.
Yes, it was a revolution for me, exactly. It is exactly the opposite of what I have done for over twenty years. But this is not a problem. I discovered that it was possible and it shifted my relation to art. Now, for instance, I can appreciate what I call irrational art as well. I spent hours observing the outsider artists presented in Venice by Massimiliano Gioni. I could not leave the show. It’s not against my work, it’s just another possibility, and I am open to it. Why not? It is another possibility, another relationship to the world. There is not only one way to live in the world; there are many ways to perceive what happens to you and what is around you. Disabled Theater brought me somewhere else, because they cannot do theater like professional actors. What I did is to respect their personal relationship to the world. Their personality, their singularity, how they put themselves into the work. And the result was unexpected. The program was to let them talk and be more discursive. But being discursive is not their strength. So I asked them, “Can you dance?” And the piece was there, the dance was suddenly so powerful, showing a real sense of joy, which is something that professional dancers have all lost, because their journey is so alienating and it kills desire and the pleasure of movement. It was a revelation, also for me. And they are very generous. They would never stop. “Disabled Theater” was a very important piece for me. Maybe it was the last one.
You mentioned this earlier, for instance after The Last Performance (1998), too.
I don’t know what I will do. I can’t go back and I don’t know if I will manage to use the freedom they had, and be able to give it to professional performers. For a contemporary dancer it is hard to detach. Although, I’m already working on a next piece: I also deal with “deskilling,” and the performers are all amateurs living in the suburbs of Paris.
by Patrick Steffen