Please Fuck Off Jérôme Bel or A 50 Year Old French White Man Makes An All Bodies Matter Dance and I Hate It

Jérôme Bel’s Gala was co-presented by Fringe Arts at The Prince Theater September 13-15, 2016.

If you wanna know about Jérôme Bel’s show Gala, skip ahead two paragraphs. Because I’m going to use his name and show title to pitch some ideas of my own here. This is the best way I can represent Gala; to use Bel’s name to delight in proposing my own half-baked ideas, some more of service than others, at his expense.

  1. I think it would be fun to make a really femme-y hot sauce. It could be called “Stacy” or “Femmey Femmey Yum Yum.” I’ve noticed branding for a lot of small batch hot sauce has an agro masculine tilt to it; it’s all about hanging out with your homeboys and not being a pussy. So, fuck that.
  2. Do you think that it’s because of the devastation of AIDS that so much of the deeply radical and transformative work of the Judson Church dance era dissolved? Queer folks of color who were involved died. Voices were lost.
  3.  I saw a show this past May by a young playwright named Eppchez (they/them). They Extract is a poetic reflection on kinds of love and measuring love. The best part was dual-character named Woolen, played by Mal Cherifi and Swift Shuker. The poetry and movement of Woolen’s character was heart breaking and hopeful. Woolen was played by two ungendered humans choreographed to compose a single character full of depth and morality. If you get nothing from this review, now you know about Eppchez and They Extract. Theirs is an ongoing creative process, exposed on the internet, and you can read (and comment!) on their website. They Extract is not a perfect play, but Eppchez is trying to do something unironic and hard. They’re not simply pointing out transness, using it as a punchline. They are assuming it is beautiful and usable, crafting with it, about it, and for it, to decipher and propose.

Now to Gala.

I don’t like Gala because it’s bullshitty and it tricks us. There’s a different category of shows I don’t like, and you’ve maybe seen too, made by dancers still shedding self-conscious feelings about being pretty on stage, or claiming identities they’ve not yet earned. Those dances, and I saw some this Fringe, are part of growing from being a dancer into being a dance maker. Many dancers have to shed the subtle trauma of physical training and learn how to be an artist, to choreograph, to compose on their friends or employees in time and space. There’s a lot of dance out there, as well there should be, made by creators in this metamorphosis stage. No shame there. Gala was not one of those shows. But it is in conversation with those shows. Gala wants to re-draw lines around what dance can be and who can do it. In that sense, Bel is at the same stage, intellectually, of a young liberal arts -educated dancer, who is just discovering dance doesn’t have to be pretty, or successful, or legible. Except that Bel is mature creator, a white male with a multi-national funding trail, who makes work that is more about celebrating his ideas as important than about researching the ideas themselves. I won’t treat him tenderly. His show Gala is cliche, gimmicky, dull, cowardly, and exploitative.

The performers, all local, made the most of the spotlight in Bel’s shallow humanity parade. Might as well. It’s what I would have done, either for the pay or the performance credit. I’m 30 and underemployed, come at me Bro. My beef, my boeuf, is with the choreographer, the invisible puppet master. The dude whose great ideas was: Yes! A literal PARADE of surface level DIVERSITY. #AllBodiesMatter. Fuck that.

The first section is a series of placards, hand drawn, revealed by the performers, turning pages on a classroom style easel. It’s DIY flashcards for dances generally associated with looking a certain way in mainstream culture and indicative of recognizable training: Ballet, Waltz, “Michael Jackson.” (The idea that “Michael Jackson” is a signifier for backwards glides, aka the Moonwalk, and that alone, is a whole different essay on race and dance and American history.) Ballet is represented by a single pirouette. We enjoy watching, one at a time, each different body walk stage left to stage right, stopping in the middle to attempt a pirouette. Reducing ballet to the most little girl stereotype of itself is emblematic of the rest of Bel’s approach. No digging, no unpacking, no tough stuff, just using the conventional idea of a thing for a laugh, then moving on.

By chance, I’ve run into a few performers since the show. When I about asked about their experience, they seemed a little uncertain. They expressed something like: “I had fun, but….?” I know the staff on the Philly end of things (Sarah Gladwin Camp is listed as assistant for local restaging) did their job to the letter because when I look at other instances of the piece online, it’s an identical “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” Cast of Otherness: Wheelchair, Down Syndrome, Ballerina, Trans, Big Girl, Latino, etc.

Gala wants to be punk rock so bad, to stick it to the man, to get life from contact with everyday-ness, to give Fancy the finger. But Gala has none of the guts, politics, or presence of punk rock. It was authoritarian, controlling to keep things safe. It feels American Apparel hip-corporate; claiming to be one thing, but feeling creepily like another.

Theater is manipulative. Movies too. Novels. This manipulation, the craft of it, keeps us watching, turning pages. It manipulates me into caring. I have seen, and likely so have you, many dancers, dances, and dance makers that rely on being impressive physically to impact their audience instead of using the tools of performance and choreography to manipulate me into caring or thinking. And it seems this is who Bel wants to call out. But what does it mean when the choreographer manipulates the audience into delight by exploiting the dancers? If we agree to being exploited because it’s fun or in sacrifice to a larger principle, does that make it okay? What I watched was a parade of beautiful individuals willingly or not putting aside their full beautiful individuality in order to stand in for the idea of their most bumper sticker self. Gala is presenting bodies traditionally underrepresented in dance and theater. But it is presenting them as interchangeable, as check boxes for their particular brand of otherness instead of as their actual, unique, individual selves, capable of deeper, complex meaning.

Gala creates a situation where, for example, I am applauding Katie for being differently abled, not for being Katie. I’m applauding Joe for being old, not for being Joe. If I were applauding Katie for being Katie, it would be because she had been choreographed in a way that honored her way of moving, and took it beyond simply pointing it out, beyond relying on the most surface level thing about her, putting it on display, and making it the punchline. Bel’s is a delightful punchline, one that makes us feel sort of pleased and goofy and is ultimately shallow. A lot of people in the audience around me were applauding constantly. If that’s you, it doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you someone who was tricked into feeling something hopeful, the same way a commercial might make me tear up. Of course you’re going to clap for a little kid, for a differently abled person, for the elderly. You’re not an asshole. And yes, in the world of mainstream Entertainment Industrial Complex, you don’t get to see those people celebrated enough. Yes, this is a relief. But there’s a difference between equity and equality.

In the section ‘Company Company’ one performer at a time comes forward to perform a solo to pop music of their choosing. It seems improvised, and the remaining company tries to follow along behind them. Google Gala, and you will see that this dance has been cast basically this same line up, everywhere in the world that it has been performed. It doesn’t shift to reflect local prejudices, populations, needs. It’s colonialist while claiming to be populist.

Of course, I want to see these kinds of bodies on stage, but not as a stand in for a choreographer’s superficial sentiment. I want to see those bodies on stages as actual performers. Take the fellow in his mid fifties: his improvisations to Pharrell’s “Happy” are a starting point. Build on them, invest in them, dig into the joy that song gives him, the freedom, let’s use choreographic tools or anti-tools to engage. Watching an older person break social codes is nourishing. Do something with it. Choreograph the ballerina to further crack open the special in her, honoring her training while asking something different of it, stretching it.

The thinness of Bel’s concept is affirmed when everyone exchanges costumes midway through. Bel might be trying to show difference as beautiful, but by treating all difference with the same sweeping stroke, he is erasing the beauty that’s inside the challenging terrain of difference. Creating a further technicolor homogeneity. Reinforcing uniqueness as interchangeable.The “Solo” section featured, the night I went, a lovely young woman performing a lyrical solo. It’s nice to witness a charming young person receive respectful attention. It made me smile the way I might genuinely smile at a Bat Mitzvah. It’s also a relief to see a young woman have the stage to herself, space to be herself, even if she is clearly reciting someone else’s movement. Did she learn it at her studio? Where did it come from? Thus, because I want her to know she’s lovely and matters in the world, I am applauding for her derivative movement, even though I’m not interested in this choreography, and, actually, she’s totally replaceable with any other young dancer. Bel is using her as a stand-in, a token. Her individuality has been silenced. But of course, she is filled with the magic of coming-of-age, with all our eyes on her, her individuality seeps out through the cracks. So we clap. Of course we do. We’re not assholes.

Because of all the consensus of applause, I think most of the people in the audience at the Prince last Wednesday were 1) just trying to get by 2) clueless to what dance can be and/or 3) have been made to felt alienated, scared, uncomfortable, or bored by dance, and so Gala was a chance to affirm their natural human feelings that dance is great and everyone should do it. Bel has made a meme, a hashtag of a dance that made a lot of people smile and laugh by pulling easy emotional triggers.

Everything is staged for a short attention span, for easy watching. No. Let us be deeply with one body. Let us be deeply with two bodies working together, bodies in pairings that do not meet our preconceptions. We watch the baton twirler twirl, we watch those behind her fail, but in a stage full of failure, and for such little time. No. Let us see. Force us to see failure, quietly, and do the choreographic work of following that failure to something else, something unseen, something formerly unknowable, no longer failure as we knew it. It might still make us laugh, but now with new information instead of affirming our preexisting outlooks. Put fewer people on stage at a time and see what our attention span does. Would this still work? Would we still applaud? Would we get bored? What happens when we get bored of these bodies? Would we? What do these people have to say? You are using them to say what you want to say. Equalité. Diversité. Homogeneité.

Fuck that. I cried when Clayton, the human of non-binary gender expression led the group in the follow-the-leader activity because it’s empowering to see this person in front, in charge, but I also think your Gala, Mr. Bel, is a World’s Fair. Bring us the Hottentot Venus and say, “Ain’t she swell?” The point is, of course she is. But she’s more than a marvel to behold. We are delighted when she dances, when she seems to be enjoying herself. “Look! She’s enjoying this! She’s a natural performer.” The choreographer’s hand is pointing, “Look at this human!” Not, “Look at this dance.” To point just at the human is to point back at yourself, Jérôme. That this dance is ultimately more about the power you exercised than about having done the work of making dance.

One last bit of shade for Mr. Bel.

Most dance makers these days realize there’s hundreds of other ways to make dance besides the dominant Western stage proscenium, and humans have been doing it the world over for centuries. I would like to see Bel work outside of the dead dance theater. He wants to challenge dance, but he’s facing the wrong direction. He is protected by the polite consensus of the proscenium theater. It’s the safest possible place because the contract of being in the theater is well known, well trained. Bel is commenting, or trying to, on the kinds of people, on the kinds of embodiment that don’t make it to the dance stage as often. It seems he has missed the point. The formal concert dance stage is not, and never was, the place of freedom. It is a descendant of the ballet court and proscenium theater. The place where plurality and multiplicity has always burst forth, no matter the conditions, is folk dance. America has a special strain of this beautiful wild work: jazz and hip-hop. If you’re making dance inside of a conventional theater contract — raised stage, seated proscenium audience, wings/curtains — you’re doing one of a few things:

  1. You’re presenting concert dance archivally, like Ailey or Graham or Balanchine, and it’s a reproduction of a historical artifact. Dance has its Davids and its Guernicas, remade annually.
  2. You’re naming and stretching concert dance stage’s social contract, fucking with it, while working inside of it, as a necessary part of doing something else, like Miguel Gutierrez or Luis Garay (presented by Fringe recently). You’re being vaudevillian, inverting and inviting power shifts between performer and viewer.
  3. You’re rehashing the same vocabulary of modern dance (ballet), injecting it with contemporary/popular culture (hip-hop, digital technology) or foreign (Eastern/other/Oriental) movement. You’re making dance in a theater without being in relationship to theater, to the medium, the form, and will thusly never be contemporary and therefore dismissed theoretically by other departments in the academic institution within which you are likely to work.

Or you’re Jérôme Bel, pointing out the deadest part of your medium (the show opened with a silent slide show of theater spaces around the world), while relying entirely on the comforts and safeties of the traditional theater contract for your own comfort and safety. Of course it’s entertaining! But it’s not art. He is pointing his critique at an establishment that’s already obsolete. He’s revealing there’s a chip on his shoulder. Gala is a feel-good-while-doing-bad sideline in a conversation that isn’t the right conversation.

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Jérôme Bel returns to Fringe Arts Nov 2 & 3 with his 1995 show “Jérôme Bel.”

5 thoughts on “Please Fuck Off Jérôme Bel or A 50 Year Old French White Man Makes An All Bodies Matter Dance and I Hate It”

  1. Heath Allen says:

    Yes! You make feel sane. Some letters to Nicole Binder’s review on Thinking Dance said similar things. Also, if you can get through the academic language (I’m still struggling), Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells has a lot of important things to say about participatory art.

  2. Michael Klien says:

    wow

  3. Bobbi Block says:

    I felt the same way but had to wait til long after the show to talk to non-attenders because everyone around me was so mesmerized. I’m so glad you wrote this. Please send this post to FringeArts! I was shocked and appalled at their enormous hype around this piece of exploitative spectacle.

  4. Sophia Laurentia says:

    I haven’t seen this show but felt similar about Bel’s earlier “Disabled Theatre” – another performance that was hyped for celebrating diversity. Pretending to critizise representation, Bel relies on stereotyping to create a visibility that seems immediate just because it’s what “the audience” (for Bel, “the audience” really is just one being, following his thoughts and experiences as one) expects his “ordinary yet unique” protagonists to be like anyway. He’s basically exploiting otherness for the purpose of naturalizing representation and thereby appropriating this otherness. The seeming immediacy serves to prove his critical approach towards “conventional theatre” while he uses this theatre’s means to make the performers appear as what he calls “outside of representation” in the first place. Bel has used this circular trick over and over and it proves he’s not genuinely interested in the “diversity” he stages yet alone in the performers he works with. Instead, he really wants to be an audience pleaser. Now why does the audience – and their assumed sameness as opposed to the actors’ otherness (“Disabled Theatre” created a strange “we” – “them” dynamic that most people in the audience seemed to take for granted as if by facing the otherness of the performers on stage, everyone in the audience became identical at once) – play the main and most important part in Bel’s plays? To quote him: “I’ve always thought that the audience should identify with me, that they should re-live the different stages of the work I’ve done. The pieces are always the chronological story of the work I’ve developed alone or with the performers. The audience should therefore go through the same emotional and intellectual stages that I myself went through during the research.” In other words, Bel does not only take himself as the centre of the performance and its only key to understanding, but thinks of performance as a lesson he can teach to anybody, no matter their own experiences and identities. No wonder his work misses some important points when it comes to diversity.

  5. Lalitaraja Joachim Chandler says:

    I confess I haven’t seen Gala either but I resonate with a lot of what you are saying. I’d love to know what you thought of “nom donné par l’auteur” It’s where his ideas about authorship, what it is and how it works a best exemplified. I have seen other more recent work of his that suggests that perhaps he doesn’t have so much say right now… I think the Candoco version of “the show must go on” really works because he just gives that work to Candoco so each performer is who they are in the work – not a token.

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