Early in his dance studies, French philosopher/theorists such as Debord and Roland Barthes intrigued Jérôme Bel. If you had interest and opportunity to see Bel’s performances over a couple of decades you might see how they influenced his work. And you might ask, Is Bel a dancer, a choreographer, a fake, a conceptualist, a philosopher, an appropriator, a storyteller, or a myth? What is it he's been nitpicking at in his search to make art that is unemotional, not spectacle, and that does not serve to entertain the audience?
He’s been a Philadelphia Fringe Festival draw since the mid-oughts. One of the final shows of the 2022 Festival featured many of his works which are still being performed around the world. In an attempt to help save the environment, Bel and company no longer use air travel, instead directing dancers by computer and phone in different cities to portray him and bring his choreographic concepts onto the stage. And in this case, largely on the screen.
Local dancer/choreographer Megan Bridge has worked with Bel on many of his projects. Here, she personifies him, reading his narrative-cum-autobiography from a laptop screen and (which she translated from French to English,) in which he casts himself, mostly, as mythic, and certainly, a mystery even unto himself. Channeling Bel’s voice, Bridge narrates his text and shows video clips of works he’s produced over the years.
Bridge has dived inside another artist's working mind like this before. In a Fringe presentation in 2015 she came through the other side of Robert Ashley's mindful meanderings in his opera, “Dust,” with a dance that perfectly matched his laconic language. Supported by Peter Price’s video projections, she and three other dancers found Ashley’s lyrical, poignant but unembellished speech rhythms and gave the audience an embodied version of its hypnotic sing-song structures.
Here we only see Bridge dance in an excerpt of “The Show Must Go On,” and “Gala” performed in 2016 by professional dancers and people who just have dance in their bones. Bridge sometimes reminds me of a birch tree whipped around in a tropical storm, like Ian which was pounding the roof of the FringeArts venue on opening night. Other non-pros like Edgardo Colon smashed the fourth wall with his Latin moves, while the young Eddie Fifield charmed everyone with his dance to John Lennon’s song “Love.” “Gala,” which is probably being performed right now somewhere, provokes many reactions. One Czech critic asked “is it authentic concept or dilettantism?”
In 2008, the festival presented two of Bel’s works that remain among my favorites. Bridge/Bel talk about the brilliant conversation between Bel and Thai dancer Pichet Klunchun, and then show excerpts of his “The Show Must Go On,” which opened at the Kimmel Center. 21 local dancers (Bridge among them) interpret 20 American pop songs—with no dancing at all for the first 20 minutes. In 2010, former Cunningham dancer Cédric Andrieux’s soft-spoken yet daringly introspective and self-deprecating monologue dissected his emotional backpack. I went to the Suzanne Roberts Theatre to see it two nights in a row. It had a tender similarity to the video Bridge showed of the 1997 “Shirtology” in which a dancer peels off layer after layer of t shirts as if revealing more and more of himself. A British critic who didn’t catch the metaphor called it “Shitology.”
Two other clips from surprisingly appealing works successfully exposed the skin of Bel’s choreographic vision to the bone. One, from Bel’s Disabled Theater, and another a 2004 Paris Opera commission, which Bel turned into a poignant theatrical documentary about a dancer in their corps de ballet. Véronique Doisneau says she is 42 and retiring because her talent was never enough to get her out of the corps and into a soloist role. Bel extracts her role in “Swan Lake” and makes it into a solo that exposes the unfair hierarchy and rigidity of the ballet world.
In contrast, the clip on Disabled Theater, allows a woman with Down Syndrome the freedom to glory in her body and sexuality without self-consciousness, shame, costume or makeup, dancing her own version of “Dancing Queen.” Another prances before her friends in various stages of disability seated behind her. When her knee bandage unravels and slips out of her trouser leg, her friends laugh hysterically as it looks as if she is dragging along a trail of toilet paper. She is fully aware of the moment and with theatrical aplomb she dips to retrieve it and wraps it around her neck with a Frenchwoman's elan. She continues to dance and wins the day, the applause of her friends and the audience. Is this all staged or completely spontaneous? Does it matter?
In “Isadora Duncan Un Spectacle de Jérôme Bel,” Bel encourages dancers to interpret Duncan with their own punchlines. The results are mixed. In 2019, I saw it live at Berlin’s Tanz im August Festival. He simply branded the reenactments “choreographic,” as performed with Duncanesque vigor by Elisabeth Schwartz and pedantically narrated in English.
Bridge played an excerpted clip performed by long-time New York Duncan interpreter and teacher, Catherine Gallant, which slips into even more bathos than Schwartz’s performance. Duncan was a great innovator for her time, and it is good to see her work carried on in the historical sense. But to the modern eye, it begins to look derisively overstated. So, for a choreographer influenced by such as Pina Bausch, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and Xavier Le Roy, I have to wonder what game he is playing with the audience in this conceptual series.
Bel wrapped up his oeuvre, so far, in a Debordian narrative delivered by Bridge with uncanny channeling of his character, or his thoughts as a character, or his caricature of himself as a choreographer embarrassed by the implication of choreographer as master puppeteer.
In spite of himself, he does entertain us with petit spectacle. We are teary-eyed emotional and left wondering at the wonder of what the body knows. In the beginning Bridge tell us, anyone who gets bored and wants to leave may do so. “There will be no theatrical twists or resolution at the end.” But there is. Bel (through Bridge) tells us he’s just had another idea.