Identity politics and dance in the age of Trump: Or how to become a “body without organs” and still acknowledge some borders

In October, I saw two very different works by the French choreographer Jérôme Bel: Jérôme Bel  at The Kitchen and Artist’s Choice: Jérôme Bel/ MoMA Dance Company at MoMA. The first contained no dance as we might traditionally think of it, in terms of constant/grandiose/fast/visible movement through space, while the former was a mash-up of various dance genres (social dance, concert dance, and “traditional” or “cultural” dance forms), moving almost constantly. Another stark difference is that in Jérôme Bel, the performers were completely nude (with the exception of one performer who entered at the every end of the work, Eric Affergan), whereas the performers in Artist’s Choice were clothed in a wide variety of clashing prints and layers. All this is to say that despite these huge differences, Jérôme Bel seems to working on the same agenda: to disrupt the hegemony of western theatrical and concert dance norms, although I argue he succeeds in varying degrees between these two works. And what might such a disruption mean for us today, 21 years since Jérôme Bel premiered in 1995? Is Jérôme Bel marked by a certain 1990s zeitgeist, or is it still just as relevant today? And what about Artist’s Choice? Does its effort to disrupt the normative conditions of western theater and concert dance translate successfully in our current era? Does Jérôme Bel’s modus operandi still do something?

Jérôme Bel at first glance seems to be a work about lack: lack of costuming, lack of lighting, lack of dance, lack of set design, lack of narrative, etc. But the lack perhaps is not a void afterall, but rather an absence of certain things (costumes, lighting, dance, etc.) that lays bare a different way of being in the theater. Perhaps this absence is a presence of something else…

After seeing Jérôme Bel, I read the following note by Alain Buffard in the program, which seemed to agree with this assessment of lack:

Not only does Jérôme Bel’s work offer new prospects for performing, but it makes a real return to questions of anthropology. Jérôme Bel (performed in Paris, Théâtre de la Bastille, 1996 and Berlin, Sophiensäle, August 1997) deals with the body, light and music in their pure literal sense, like a minimalist manifesto applied to dance. This show presents the body in all its objective simplicity and functionality. It thus foils any attempt by the dancer and, likewise, the spectator, to interpret it emotionally. As a result, the subtle simplicity of this choreographic device allows for a critical reading of what is being done and undone in front of us. Which, it seems to me, opens up numerous ways of interpreting it, and makes of this piece a sort of emblematic banner of the nineteen-nineties. 

-Alain Buffard, Berlin, April 22, 1999

Most critics, including Buffard, will argue that this “minimalism” shows the degree to which much of western theater and dance relies upon certain theatrical devices, and how in shedding them, Jérôme Bel considers a different way of being in dance/theater and perhaps eschews a traditional and static representation of the body.

But of course, despite Bel’s best efforts to strip the stage and the body of all signs and signifiers, we still find them. Bodies still/always have meaning. In fact Judith Butler argues that bodies have meaning as soon as (and before) they exit the womb. In the eyes of the state, having a vagina, one is always already female, and having a penis, one is always already male. Within heterosexist cultures, sex and gender are conflated and policed through speech acts such as “it’s a girl” or “it’s a boy,” which seek to reinforce gender normativity and heteronormative desire (Butler xvii). These speech acts are reproduced in Jérôme Bel when performers Claire Haenni and Frédéric Seguette write their legal names on the black chalkboard behind them, which serves as one of the few pieces of set design. When Claire Haenni writes “Claire Haenni,” I wonder if it is really her, but decide it must be if it’s written (the power of the “speech” act). Both Haenni and Seguette go on to write their age, bank account balance, telephone numbers, weight, and height in vertical succession, slowly, deliberately. Many, or perhaps all, of these facts one finds on state documents such as driver’s licenses, and repeated on various official forms and documents. This writing only serves to underscore/reveal the omnipresent role of state power in identity formation and preservation.

And yet, these particular and gendered identities are complicated in various ways. Bel seeks to disrupt representation through Haenni manipulating her own body. Very slowly, Haenni grasps flesh around her stomach, flank, arms, turning slowly to face away from us. At times, her flesh looked almost plastic, fake. Something about the diffused light of the lightbulb on her back and the dancing shadows created the illusion of a different materiality which could almost exist on its own, separate from Haenni’s gender and corporeality. And yet, we still understand her measuring and looking as a particularly female act. As a woman, I identify with Haenni. I cannot help it. I too have been inscribed by state power and gendered female. And with that gender comes an entire compendium of thoughts and ideas about the way one’s body should look/act.

There are a myriad of other moments that mark Haenni’s body as female despite Bel’s interest in avoiding what he terms “the erotic body”: the lipstick “bustier” or “dress” that Seguette helps her zip up in true heteronormative fashion; the Christian Dior leg, conflating her body with sexualized commodity. But possibly one of the most significant and revealing moments of femininity is Haenni’s duet with Seguette. In silhouette, Haenni and Seguette face each other and then begin to slowly inflate and deflate their bellies. As Haenni inflates, Seguette deflates, and vice versa. In moments, the dance is beautiful in its geometry, a study in negative and positive space. But I cannot help to think of this act beyond its pure form. To me, the inflating female belly means so much more than the male one. Beyond the purely “functional” aspects of the body Buffard refers to, carrying a fetus is not only within the physical capacity of the female sex, but also always already an assumed requirement of the female gender. To be a woman and decide not to have a child is considered almost “unnatural” in our largely heteronormative society. To refuse this duty would be to queer the space in some way, and to always already read the belly as maternal, is to acknowledge the overwhelming power of the state.

Perhaps the most critical moment of performative (un)gendering is when Seguette lifts his scrotum over his penis, changing his body. He takes the very marker of his sex and hides it, and yet, we are reminded of what’s there because of its absence. The omnipresence of the male genitals are again subverted when Haenni poses with her head behind Seguette’s behind, allowing her hair to pass through his thighs and around his scrotum. The hair is then segmented into 2 parts, so that it appears as though the scrotum is growing long hair, and then each half is divided into 3 parts, which are arranged in a starfish pattern around the genitals. The audience laughs at this, the most male part of the body being turned into something rather curious and other-than. But despite Bel/Seguette’s best efforts to create a neutral body, he is still a man (temporarily) without a penis.

And this seems to be precisely Bel’s point; that despite his best efforts to neutralize the body, it is always already marked by the state with a gender, a “proper” name, and a particular place within “proper” society, which is impossible to escape. Jérôme Bel must continually work to re-arrange the “proper” order. Much of Bel’s work has been influenced by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s theories of the “body without organs,” such that Bel rejects “the notion of a subject as a self-representational, closed entity, limited by its localizable and visible corporeal boundaries” (Lepecki 50). Rather, Bel is interested in a subjectivity along the lines of what Deleuze and Guattari term “the pack” defined by André Lepecki as an “open subjectivity that will not be contained by the legal enclosure imposed by name, character, or the reification of the isomorphism between visible body and full-presence” (50). But of course this particular subjectivity, this “body without organs,” for Deleuze, Guattari, Lepecki, and Bel, is “an ongoing experiment” that never ends (Lepecki 50). It is a body that can never be reached for “you are forever attaining it” (Deleuze and Guattari 166).

In Jérôme Bel, the body is constantly trying to find ways to eschew a singular entity such as “Claire Haenni,” or “male gendered,” or “human.” When Haenni and Seguette urinate on stage at the end of the work, their static corporeality dissolves, and particles of Haenni and Seguette make their way beyond the confines of the body. They use this very extra-corporeality to change their names on the board into “Eric chante ABBA.” Scooping up their urine, they begin to erase certain letters until “the transformation of language takes place” (Lepecki 56). Haenni and Seguette’s opening of subjectivity through this extracorporeal act creates the materiality for a re-naming, the dissolution of “Claire Haenni” and “Frederic Seguette.” And Eric does sing ABBA, very simply following instructions/language, perhaps re-inscribing, re-cycling the hegemony of the state through the hegemony of the speech act.

And yet, I cannot help but wonder if it really is so simple to follow “proper” linguistic instructions (fitting in with certain modes of being), or to conversely resist representation and become a “body without organs.” Because precisely what kind of body are we thinking about here? Gender distinctions enter the equation in Jérôme Bel, but do racial ones? For all intents and purposes, all four bodies performing Jérôme Bel appear to be white. Why is there this absence of race in Bel’s work? Is it intentional? Is a racialized white body a prerequisite for becoming a “body without organs” or at least one capable of becoming somewhat neutralized? What would this work look like with a black or brown body in it? Would that change things? Can a black body be neutral?

I would argue that the presence of a black body would most definitely change things. There is a certain overdetermination in the visibility of black corporeality that would make it more difficult (more impossible?) for a black body to appear entirely neutral. I would suggest that a closeness to corporeal neutrality is the privilege of the white body, just as the ease with which one fits in with or adheres to the confines of linguistic instruction/ cultural mandates is predicated on whiteness. Fitting in as well as going unnoticed is simpler if you’re white.

Not surprisingly, Deleuze and Guattari were notorious for leaving out race and somewhat marginalizing gender distinctions. They seem to deal with race and gender only briefly and in a discomforting way in A Thousand Plateaus. They use strange language in speaking about being female (as well as being minoritarian in general) as a “special situation…in relation to the man-standard” (321, emphasis mine). They insist that “becomings, being minoritarian, always pass through a becoming-woman” (321), with becoming-woman existing as that which is inseparable from “the reconstruction of the body as a Body Without Organs” (305). While the diminutive “special” serves to mandate woman as substandard in relation to man, Deleuze and Guattari also seem dismissive of the minority subject’s lived experience calling it the “strange adventure of the becoming-Jewish” (321).

There is a sense that this otherness, being female, being minoritarian, is merely a tool used for the potentiality of their theories and the means to a utopian end without truly knowing or living the reality of such a minoritarian existence. If a white man must “become-woman” and/or “become-minoritarian” in order to become a “body without organs,” then I argue that there is a kind of cultural appropriation, a stealing, a using going on. Especially when the actual appearance of a minoritarian body is absent from Bel’s work.

There is also a certain tone to this work, both Deleuze and Guattari’s as well as Bel’s, that assumes a kind of achievable “multiculturalism” or “post-raciality” in the neutral body which undermines the realities of continuing racism and segregation in the western world. If one can be, or be towards, a “body without organs,” then one can ostensibly be unmarked, without allegiances or nationalities, beyond corporeality, a body “beyond race.” We are entering into dangerous territory here.

There is a similar tone of utopian, familial, multiculturalism present in Artist’s Choice: Jérôme Bel/ MoMA Dance Company. On the MoMA website, Artist Choice is described as an exhibition series begun in 1989 which invites contemporary artists to curate an installation from the Museum’s current collection. Jérôme Bel was the first choreographer asked to participate in Artists Choice. In this work, about 25 MoMA staff members, gleaned from an open call, were asked to create short solos to perform in the MoMA Atrium. At each showtime, about 10 solos would be selected, and then each soloist would perform their piece one at a time in front of the remaining 24 staff members who try to copy the selected choreography in real time.

What does such a performance do? one might ask. Well, MoMA tells you right on their website:

MoMA Dance Company subverts the idea of a dance company and notions of virtuosity—and the typical focus of Artist’s Choice installations on objects—to challenge the imaginations and expectations of audiences and the institution itself.

From such a statement, one can see that this work intends to subvert some of the traditional ontologies of western concert dance and theatricality like Jérôme Bel. And indeed the performers, some professional, some amateurs, and of varying ages, come together to perform less than virtuosically. Dance is democratized as that which can be performed in a professional setting by anyone. The particular performance I attended also mixed genres: there was a classical ballet variation en pointe, what looked like a traditional sword dance from Southeast Asia, a sort of high-energy groove to punk rock, hip hop, bossa nova, etc. Thus, genres that are often deemed less than worthy of the concert hall found their home amongst dances that are more often privileged or considered “high art.”

The motif of follow the leader confused the boundary between spectator and performer while also delocalizing the authorship and ownership of the solo itself. All were assumed to be “equal” participants, where the direction to follow was not too far off from a more insidious demand to obey, revealing “choreography as a haunting machine, a body snatcher” (Lapecki 63), a thing of great power. Lepecki discusses how this understanding of authoritative authorship, in which Bel is so heavily invested, calls to mind Michel Foucault’s “author-function,” explicated as that which is “tied to the legal and institutional systems that circumscribe, determine, and articulate the realm of discourses…defined through a series of precise and complex procedures” (qtd. In Lepecki 51).

But also, the failure of the followers to closely replicate the soloist’s steps insists upon the impossibility of a complete and perfect sameness, subverting the totalizing force of choreography and its hegemonic power. No two bodies are alike in their interpretations, their habits of motility, their modes of being in the world. Power is revealed and contested here.

And yet, as with Jérôme Bel and its dismissiveness of race, Artist’s Choice similarly trivializes a kind of utopian multiculturalism and inclusiveness. The whole atmosphere of the work was that of generally high-spirits, vitality, and conviviality. It seemed like all fun and games, and yet, it’s too easy. Multiculturalism takes real work, much more than a simple game of follow-the-leader. I became particularly uneasy when one soloist performed what appeared to be a traditional sword dance from a Southeast Asian country. I’m not even sure where the dance is from or the context in which it lives, and therein is the core of the problem with Artist’s Choice. Stripped of an honest contextualization, this racialized dance can too easily veer off into the territory of historical relic and/or commodification, particularly within the context of the museum space which has a history of freezing marginalized people and cultures in a past time, therein objectifying them. And there is not only ignorance in this lack of understanding, but also a violence in claiming understanding and ownership of a culture that is not one’s own.

Both Jérôme Bel and Artist’s Choice do something to trouble the ontology of western dance and its representation of the body, but I must argue that they don’t do enough. To insist in a kind of multicultural utopia in this day and age, where racism and prejudice in the west is a real epidemic (see Trump, see Brexit), is to idealize a fantasy and trivialize the constant work of “being minoritarian.”

Works Cited
Butler, Judith. Introduction. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, by Butler, Routledge, 2011, pp. xi-xxx.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Translated by Brian Massumi, A & C Black, 2004.
Lepecki, André. Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement.  Routledge, 2006.

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