Pichet Klunchun and Myself (2005)
Born in France in 1964, Bel studied contemporary dance and performed with various choreographers, including Angelin Preljoçaj, Daniel Larrieu, Joëlle Bouvier and Régis Obadia. After working as assistant director to Philippe Decouflé on the opening ceremony for the 1992 Winter Olympics, Bel realised that he preferred directing to performing. So he took a two-year career break, living in Paris and reading Barthes and Foucault. “I felt the only way to be a choreographer,” he explained, “was to read philosophy and dance history.”
In 1994 he presented his first piece, Nom donné par l’auteur, a kind of anti-dance in which objects such as a vacuum cleaner, a salt tub and a hairdryer were the focus, and the dancers (Bel and Frédéric Saguette) were there to move them around. His next piece, self-titled Jérôme Bel (1995), involved four naked performers and, notoriously, onstage urination – which led some waggish French stagehands to rename theprime de feu (a fee for extra onstage work) their prime de pipi.
Bel soon gained an international reputation for being a philosophe, a provocateur and an enfant terrible who would épater le bourgeois with his succès de scandale while simultaneously disarming audiences with his tousled Gallic insouciance. Nevertheless, in some quarters he was still dismissed as a clever clogs who pisses about.
Bel continues to live in Paris with his young daughter, who recently subverted her father’s subversions by persuading him to take her, all excited and dressed in pink, to a traditional story ballet at the Opéra. “I almost fell asleep,” Bel said.
Watching Jérôme Bel
This section should really be called “reading Jérôme Bel”, for as any critical theory student who knows their Barthes from their behind will tell you, the audience’s perception of a performance is a reading of it, not simply an experience. Bel likes to flout theatrical codes to reveal that process.
One way to start “reading” Jérôme Bel is to look at his titles. His first piece, Nom donné par l’auteur (“Name given by the author”) is the dictionary definition of the word “title” – hence, a kind of non-title. The Last Performance (1998) was not his last performance, and Xavier Le Roy (2000), though officially by Bel, was in fact choreographed by his colleague Xavier Le Roy “in the manner of” Jérôme Bel. Such artful ironies are not always intentional: Bel cancelled The Show Must Go On 2 (2004) shortly after its premiere, having presumably decided not to take its title too literally.
Text is very common: Shirtology (1997) is a kind of textual striptease, with layer after layer of T-shirts being removed, each bearing a different printed slogan; in The Show Must Go On (2001), a bopalong performance to pop songs, the dancers sing snatches of the lyrics; more recently the performers simply talk a lot.
Bel likes implicating his audiences. Jérôme Bel (1995) ends with a recorded voice listing the names of everyone who has reserved tickets for the performance. Sometimes – as at the Paris premiere of The Show Must Go On, when one critic slapped another as audiences booed and stormed out – the spectators become a spectacle themselves.
And dance? It is often made conspicuous by its absence: Bel uses ordinary movement, non-dancers, and prefers pointing out the conditions in which dance is staged rather than focusing on dance itself. The nearest he gets to straightforward dancing is in a cycle of biographical works about the lives of dancers. The best known is Véronique Doisneau (2004), in which Doisneau, a low-rank dancer in the Paris Opera Ballet on the eve of her retirement after 20 years’ work, reflects on her life in dance – and finally gets to be centre stage.
Frédéric Seguette was a regular performer with Bel in the early years.
In 2002, the International dance festival Ireland was sued for €38,000 by audience member Raymond Whitehead after a performance of Bel’s Jérôme Bel. He complained it did not contain any dance – which he defined as “people moving rhythmically, jumping up and down, usually to music” – and that it had left him unable to attend theatre ever since (though that, he granted, was down to scenes such as the peeing man drooling on his own penis). His case was eventually dismissed in 2004.
In his own words
“I love dance, but I started too old to ever be very good. I’m more a philosopher of dance.” – Interview with Valerie Gladstone, Boston Globe, 2011
“People who are well acquainted with the codes of performance understand how I play with them. And those who aren’t play along with my new codes. The problem I have is those in the middle: the bourgeoisie, those who are sure of their values.” – Interview with Kristin Hohenadel, New York Times, 2005
“As for improvisation, I feel it’s a totally overestimated practice … The presupposition of freedom and authenticity of the subject … seems to me to show an extremely naive attitude. People like Foucault, Deleuze or Bourdieu have shown how illusory such an idea is.” – Interview with Gerald Siegmund, Tanz Aktuell/Ballet International, 2002
“Sometimes I think people are getting more and more clever watching us be more and more stupid.” – Quoted in Tim Etchells, Dance Theatre Journal, 2004
In other words
“His work skirts the fine and dangerous line between the banal and the theatrical.” – Roslyn Sulcas, New York Times, 2010
“An endearingly rumpled, brilliant enfant terrible and master of wry, sly minimalism.” – Jennifer Dunning, New York Times, 2007
“Paradoxically, this refusal to entertain is itself deeply entertaining – at least for those of us familiar with Bel’s reading list.” – Claire Bishop, Artforum, 2008
“I do not think that dance is so important in your work, but I do think that your work is important for dance.” – Paris Opera Ballet director Brigitte Lefèvre in 2004, on commissioning a piece by Bel
“Ceci n’est pas une danse.”
(Which makes you sound totally au fait with French discourses on art and representation.)
“This is not a dance.”
(In English, it just sounds whiney. And bourgeois.)
Now watch this
Shirtology (1997, in a 2010 performance).
Cédric Andrieux (2009)
You can also find a good range of video interviews with excerpts of Bel’s work here.
Where to see Jérôme Bel next
See Bel’s website for performance dates.