And Time Goes By So Slowly When You’re Watching Jérôme Bel

The Show Must Go On

Time has passed since Jérôme Bel’s The Show Must Go On premiered in Paris, and not an insubstantial amount, either: it was first shown in 2001. It returned to New York City this October as part of the 2016 Crossing the Line Festival, along with a number of the choreographer’s other works.

Photo by Yi-Chun Wu

Within the performance itself, time gets marked like this: a stack of CDs diminishes, one by one; songs play out in full, one per CD. If you’ve ever watched a performance that has a functioning clock on stage, or a lecture being read from a sheaf of papers, you know how impossible it is to ignore these kinds of benchmarks. We acclimate quickly and come to depend on the comforting rhythm: deejay removes the previous CD, replaces it with the next one from the stack, hits PLAY, performers dance until the song ends. The physical interpretation of the songs is hammily literal, the way my friends constructed homemade choreography to Britney Spears songs when we were kids. Show (spread hands) me (point to self) how (palms up and shrug) you (point to someone else) want (clenched fists) it to (hold up two fingers) be (a discussion: how to represent “be”?). The songs are devilishly catchy, representing “every mixtape I made in the nineties,” as my friend remarked after the show—this dates things in a particular way, since The Show Must Go On premiered fifteen years ago, but this audience does still know them all, and at times feels the almost irresistible urge to sing along. Almost. We don’t sing along. Why don’t we? The show invites it. But the audience at the Joyce Theater on October 20, 2016 doesn’t take the bait. It isn’t sure how to handle this show, in fact. There are many walkouts in the last third. They seem to be boredom walkouts. It’s a little hard to fathom, because I am entranced. But I knew what I was in for and it’s clear most of this audience didn’t.

Visible and audible discomfort ripples through the audience when the timekeeping convention breaks. The stack had dwindled to a single CD, and we thought we were a song away from the end of the show, but instead of following formula, all of the performers walk out onto the stage of the Joyce with iPods and begin to dance to private songs, telegraphed to us by their irregular belting out of an iconic phrase from each song. The theater echoes with I will always love you and Fame! I want to live forever and We are the world, we are the children. We didn’t have the guts to sing along? That’s okay, they’ll do it for us.

Jérôme Bel

THOMAS EDISON, a round naked woman, lights the stage with a lightbulb. JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH, a slender naked man, softly sings one of his famous melodies. A naked dancer stretches her skin like she’s trying it on, like it’s a piece of clothing. Another naked dancer points us to spots on his skin as if what they demonstrate is self-evident. The woman’s hair becomes the man’s hair, becomes his armpit hair, becomes the hair of his groin. The performers write on their own bodies with lipstick. On one another’s bodies. Words are erased and re-formed, markings blurred and re-figured. The woman colors in a section of her chest with the bright red lipstick, then smacks one of her own ass cheeks vigorously many times in a row before turning around to show it to us. It’s red, almost as red as her lipstick-smeared chest. Marks on the body, marks made by the body, marks the body leaves.

Photo by Herman Sorgeloos

The audience at The Kitchen is younger than at The Joyce. It’s hipper to the scene. It’s much more insular: the claustrophobic lobby before the house opened was a dull roar of greetings exchanged between acquaintances. This audience knew what it was in for with Jérôme Bel’s Jérôme Bel. There is a single walkout in the course of the show, triggered by a lengthy release of bodily fluids (several) onto the stage floor, followed by a lengthy and unsettling shuttling of those same bodily fluids, by hand, from floor to chalked wall to alter by partial erasure the names chalked there. That walkout I understand, though I am, again, entranced. The door slams; we laugh and, simultaneously, wish it would end. JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH, now JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH, begins to sing “Dancing Queen.” Streaks of urine and saliva air-dry on the wall. Time’s wake is palpable.

Even more time has passed since this work’s 1995 premiere. Within Jérôme Bel, time works like this: we never expect any action to be complete. There is always something coming later (an erasure, an addition, a different frame) that will recast each action. In this show, time leaves a distinct wake as it moves forward. I watch and think about aging, fame, legacy, and self-definition. And, of course, there’s the fact that I’m watching this show twenty-one years after it was first made, which is evidence in itself that no action is complete and no work ever finished and that even a slight shift in context can change the meaning of an object, whether that object is a thing, a body, or a performance piece. Jérôme Bel feels dated. It drips with hallmarks of nineties performance. But it also feels utterly essential. It isn’t a museum piece. Alive to the moment it’s in, it stays fresh because what it has to tell us is that we never really know what something is until we’re looking back at it.

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