‘Portrait: Jérôme Bel’, Autumn Festival, Paris: ‘Disabled Theatre’, ‘Pichet Klunchun and Myself’, ‘The Show Must Go On’, ‘Un Spectacle en moins’
The Autumn Festival in Paris runs from September through December each year, staging contemporary dance, theatre, music and exhibitions in venues across the city and surrounding suburbs in the Île de France. The most recent festival ‘Portrait’ was devoted to the choreographer (though he might resist the term) Jérôme Bel, and included nine shows from the past 15 years of his career. I managed to see four, and they raised lots of questions for me about theatre and performance, culture, power and representation. They were also, I’m pleased to say, unfailingly witty, accessible and entertaining, even at their most provocative (or deliberately boring).
The controversially titled Disabled Theatre was originally commissioned in 2012 by Theater HORA – who according to their website are ‘Switzerland’s only professional company whose ensemble-members all have a “state certified mental disability”’. It was remounted in Paris for the Festival at two very different venues: the community-orientated La Commune in the working-class outer suburb of Aubervilliers, and the elegant Espace Cardin of the Théâtre de la Ville near the Champs Élysées. I saw it at the Espace Cardin, reserving my trip to Aubervilliers for a very different show five weeks later (about which more below).
A translator (Simone Truong) who also operates sound cues sits downstage left; upstage a line of eleven empty chairs faces the audience. She informs the audience (in French) that during rehearsals she was asked to translate between Bel and the performers (who only speak and understand Swiss German). Then she begins to repeat (in German) the tasks that Bel gave the cast in rehearsals; a French translation of each instruction appears in surtitles on a screen above the stage; and the eleven cast-members begin to enter and perform each task one by one (if required to speak, they do so in Swiss German, and a French translation of their words appears on the screen).
The first task requires the cast to enter the stage one by one (in any order they choose) and stand there in front of the audience without moving or speaking for a full minute before exiting again. In fact the length of time each performer remained there varied considerably, as did the performers themselves and the emotional tone of each ‘scene’. I found this a thrilling and confronting exercise for performers and audience alike.
The second half of the show shifted gear into dance – and also introduced what might be called an element of ‘dramatic conflict’ (a theatrical convention that Bel himself would probably contest).
For the second task the translator placed a microphone downstage centre, and the performers were invited to re-enter (again, one by one and in no particular order), tell us their name and what they do for a living, and then sit down in one of the chairs. This time I was immediately confronted by their ‘disabled’ speech; I was also struck by the fact that almost all of them described their job as ‘actor’; though one said – I think – that they sold something on the street; another said: ‘In this show, my job is to be myself.’
For the third task, the translator once again called the cast to the microphone one by one, but this time by name – thus tightening, as it were, the chain of power – to tell us what their ‘handicap’ was; the term ‘handicap’ being presumably an English loan-word in French, but apparently (or perhaps not) without the same stigma attached to its usage. In any case, the tension was palpable in the audience.
The responses by the performers relieved the tension somewhat, but left further questions hanging in the air. One told the audience, ‘I have one more chromosome than you guys,’ which got a laugh. Another said that he was autistic (most of the performers seemed to have either Down Syndrome or autism). Another said that his handicap was chewing his fingers (a habit I’d noticed while he was sitting in his chair); he then demonstrated by elaborately chewing different parts of his hand (some of the others seated behind him began doing the same thing). Another said she didn’t know what her handicap was.
The second half of the show shifted gear into dance – and also introduced what might be called an element of ‘dramatic conflict’ (a theatrical convention that Bel himself would probably contest). The microphone was cleared out of the way and seven performers were invited in turn (again by name) to do a dance they had choreographed for themselves to a piece of music of their choice. Their choices were mostly commercial pop tracks, well-known to most of the audience and (with a couple of exceptions) mostly appalling. The performances on the other hand were enthralling. They threw themselves into their self-devised dance-routines with furious energy, the unique creativity and beauty of each individual performer revealed. Being freed from the constraints of language seemed to liberate their bodies; notions of ‘disability’ evaporated as each performance generated its own ‘laws of motion’. Their movements had nothing to do with the words, which (like the music) were in any case mostly inane and apparently irrelevant. A signal exception was Michael Jackson’s ‘They Don’t Care About Us’, chosen by one of the most compelling performers in the ensemble (Julia Häusermann; but even here, it was impossible to know if the choice of lyrics (not to mention the additional irony of the controversy that surrounded Jackson’s song when it was released) was deliberate or serendipitous.
After the seventh dance, the microphone was replaced centre-stage and all the performers were invited to come forward and tell the audience what they thought of the show. The responses were as diverse as the performers themselves and their performances. Some said they loved it. One said her family described it as ‘a freak show’; another said she was sick of Michael Jackson and wanted to hear Justin Bieber instead; yet another (Gianni Blumer) said that it was unfair that Bel had chosen only the seven dances he thought were ‘the best’, and that he wanted to do his dance too. The translator then announced that after Gianni first made this complaint during a performance, Bel decided to let him and the other four do their dances as well; and these now became the final ‘act’ of the show.
This acknowledgment (and inclusion) of aesthetic (and political) judgement, conflict and resolution was a decisive moment in the show. To disavow judgement (however subjective) about which performances were ‘better’ than others (at least in the eyes of Bel himself) would be to replicate another, perhaps more insidious form of discrimination, by implying that such judgements didn’t apply to these performers because of their disabilities. Conversely, by giving the performers a voice, and the opportunity to contest Bel’s judgement, the work invited us to apply our own judgements (however subjective these too might be) to the performances (and the show). Indeed, one of the (previously excluded) dance-routines that followed (by Damian Bright, the actor who had earlier identified himself as having one more chromosome than the people in the audience) was for me the most powerful performance of the night.
Leaving the theatre and crossing the Avenue des Champs Élysées to get the last bus back to where I was staying, I saw the cast crossing the street ahead of me, presumably on their way to their own accommodation, accompanied by a few other people I didn’t recognize, perhaps touring or stage crew, family or other support people. Seeing them out of the context of the theatre and in the ‘real’ world, I was forcibly reminded of their ‘disabled’ status, and found myself wondering about their vulnerability, on a busy street in a foreign city. I thought about going up to them and thanking them for the show, but hesitated, telling myself: ‘Perhaps they don’t want to be intruded on. Anyway, I probably wouldn’t be able to communicate with them…I mean, in Swiss-German…’
Then I caught myself. Prevaricating. Double-thinking. Discriminating.
Two weeks later I saw Pichet Klunchun and Myself in the downstairs performance space at the Pompidou Centre. Like Disabled Theatre, it was originally a commission – in this case by the Bangkok Fringe Festival in 2004 – and takes the form of a verbal and physical exchange and duet (which is also a kind of duel) between Bel and Klunchun, a Thai contemporary dancer and practitioner of traditional Thai court dance or khon.
The show begins with two empty chairs facing each other across the stage. Klunchun and Bel enter and sit opposite each other. Klunchun is neatly dressed in black, has bare feet, is clean-shaven and has a shaved head; Bel is sloppily dressed in a jacket, jeans and boots, has messy hair, is unshaven, and carries a laptop, which he uses to refer to the ‘score’ and (later) to operate sound cues.
In the first ‘Act’ of the show, Bel reads out questions from the laptop, which Klunchun answers one by one, much along the lines of the questionnaire used in Disabled Theatre: what’s your name; what’s your profession; how did you become a dancer? (Unlike Disabled Theatre, these questions and answers are in their shared language, English.)
Klunchun begins by explaining that he became a practitioner of khon because his mother become pregnant with him after praying at a temple whose resident deity appreciated dance. He explains that khon is a highly codified form of storytelling illustrating the Ramayana (and using elaborate masks, costumes, music and narration) that was developed over centuries and supported by royal patronage, but is now little understood by Thai people themselves and largely practised as a tourist attraction.
At this point Bel intervenes to remark that Western ballet also has its origins in the court – specifically the French court of Louis XIV, who prided himself on his prowess as a dancer, and under whose reign the basic steps of classical ballet were first codified. He also alludes to the historical function of ballet (and by implication dance, theatre, art and culture) as a political tool in the exercise of power.
Bel now asks Klunchun to demonstrate some of the dance moves in khon. Klunchun obliges, rises from his seat, heads upstage and gives a basic lesson in the vocabulary of khon, demonstrating the four main characters – warrior, woman, demon and monkey. His demonstration is punctuated by spoken commentary; he even admits at one point that the task he’s performing is of necessity compromised in terms of its authenticity because khon dancers traditionally perform masked and in silence. As in Disabled Theatre, the show makes a subtle but decisive shift at this point from spoken language to the language of the body, as well as a cultural shift to the more opaque (to us) language of the Other – in this case, Thai culture, and specifically khon.
Bel obligingly puts on the David Bowie track ‘Let’s Dance’, goes and stands upstage again, then bursts in sporadic bouts of bad freestyle dancing whenever the title words of the song are repeated.
Klunchun finishes his demonstration, and Bel admits that the difference between man and woman was almost indiscernible to him. Klunchun draws his attention to the extremely subtle variations in posture and hand gestures, and adds that the differences between the characters would normally be heightened by the masks. He also concedes that he himself specializes in monkey. He explains that the female character he’s just danced is expressing grief for the death of her beloved, and this provides a touching context for the delicate movements and gestures we’ve just seen. Bel now asks him how death itself is represented in khon, and Klunchun responds with two further demonstrations: in the first, he repeats the warrior dance, but moves backwards until (somewhat humorously) he disappears into the wings; in the second, he does an extremely slow walk halfway across the stage and then stops. Bel correctly guesses that this is the funeral procession, and asks him how long the whole thing would take, to which Klunchun replies: about one week. Bel then asks if death can be represented directly onstage; Klunchun tells him that isn’t possible in khon.
Bel now asks Klunchun to teach him some moves, gets up and joins him upstage. Much comedy is made of Bel’s attempts to get things right; as well as being incompetent he’s also an excellent clown. We also learn to appreciate Klunchun’s artistry a great deal more by observing the difference between them.
In the second ‘Act’, the tables are turned: now it’s Klunchun’s turn to ask the same questions of Bel, and the latter’s struggle to give coherent answers provides more opportunities for comedy, as well as revealing a great deal about Bel’s work and thought. After some hesitation, he answers the question of ‘what do you do?’ by saying that he began as a dancer and then became a choreographer – or rather, that he’s not really a choreographer but a theatre-maker. Klunchun asks him to demonstrate what he does, and Bel offers to show him something that he’s used in more than one show because it’s one of the pieces of choreography he’s made that he likes the most. Then he goes upstage, stands and looks out in the direction of the audience for about a minute without doing anything else (the same task he asked the performers to do in Disabled Theatre).
Klunchun tells him he’s disappointed (laughter from the audience) and asks for something that involves dance. Bel obligingly puts on the David Bowie track ‘Let’s Dance’, goes and stands upstage again, then bursts in sporadic bouts of bad freestyle dancing whenever the title words of the song are repeated, standing still during the other parts of the song until it’s over. Klunchun tells him he’s disappointed again (more laughter), and Bel concedes that many people find his work disappointing and even ask for their money back. He explains that for him the difference between traditional and contemporary performance is that in traditional performance the audience has the right to expect certain things – for example that in a production of Swan Lake there will be swans – while in contemporary performance ‘there might be ducks’. He advances the hypothesis that traditional audiences pay for things they expect to be given, whereas contemporary audiences are more like gamblers, placing a bet or wager on an outcome that they don’t know in advance. He concedes that there’s pleasure in both, but for him, the uncertain pleasure of contemporary performance (when it delivers) is something one remembers for a lifetime. He adds that he’s not interested in ‘expertise’ on the part of performers, but in criticizing the idea that people pay to see other people do things better than they can themselves. He refers to the influence of Guy Debord’s critique of the ‘society of the spectacle’ and says he wants to create a more egalitarian form of theatre that breaks down traditional hierarchies between performer and audience. For him the thing about theatre that differentiates it from cinema or TV is the presence of performers and audience in the same place and time.
He now offers to demonstrate another of the favourite things he’s made – which also involves the representation of death onstage. This is a piece of ‘choreography’ from The Show Must Go On (which I was to see the following week). He searches on his laptop, puts on ‘Killing Me Softly’, once more goes and stands upstage, and begins lip-synching the words. At the end of each verse, he progressively lowers himself towards the floor, until he’s just lying there, lip-synching. Finally he stops lip-synching and just lies there until the song ends.
Once again, the whole mood of the show changes; the effect is quietly devastating. Bel gets up and goes back to his chair; after a silence, Klunchun acknowledges that he too has been deeply moved. He tells Bel that the performance reminds him of his mother, who died peacefully and even gratefully after years of living with paralysis. Bel nods and thoughtfully remarks: ‘She died softly’.
Bel has one final ‘act’ up his sleeve. Klunchun asks him about one of his first works, the self-titled ‘Jerome Bel’ (also included in the Festival portrait, but one I didn’t get to see), in which Bel performed naked, and asks him why he did so. Bel explains that he wanted to make a work that reduced dance to its essence. He asks Klunchun what he thinks this is; Klunchun obligingly answers ‘the body’, and Bel agrees. He says that he wanted to explore what it means to have a body –to rediscover its almost surprising strangeness. He gets up once more and begins to demonstrate, rolling up his t-shirt and grasping, feeling and squeezing handfuls of flesh around his (now flabby middle-aged) waist and torso. Then he begins to undo his trousers, but Klunchun politely but firmly tells him to stop. Bel asks him why, and Klunchun simply explains that ‘it’s not traditional to do that in Thai culture’. Bel respects his friend’s wishes, fastens his belt, smooths down his shirt and sits down again. Somewhat pointedly he observes that it’s strange to hear this, because he thought that Thailand was famous for dancers performing naked in clubs and bars. Klunchun’s response is even more pointed: ‘We only do that for tourists.’ The show is over, and both men take a bow.
As with Disabled Theatre, it’s difficult to convey in words the experience of watching Pichet Klunchun and Myself, and in particular the intellectual and emotional complexity hidden beneath the surface of its apparently artless simplicity. In fact I found it a more slyly subversive (if less obviously challenging) work, perhaps because of the greater degree of social and artistic equality between the two protagonists. It was also the perfect primer for the two shows I saw the following weekend: the undeniably spectacular The Show Must Go On and the even more intimate and minimal Un Spectacle en moins.
The Show Must Go On was originally commissioned by theatre director Thomas Ostermeier and choreographer Sasha Waltz for the Berlin Schaubühne, and accordingly conceived as a piece for actors and dancers; but the concept proved to be a mismatch between Bel’s interests and those of the Schaubühne directors, and it was reclaimed and repurposed for his own company in 2001 as an uncharacteristically large-scale work for 30 performers, who for budgetary as well as aesthetic reasons included amateurs as well as professionals. The result proved to be perhaps his most controversial work, dividing and incensing audiences when it was first performed in Paris (people climbed up onto the stage to stop the show). It’s since toured the world in various incarnations for 15 years: the Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon did a version for professional dancers in 2007; and in 2015 the Candoco Dance Company revived it for a mixed cast of twenty-two dancers and non-dancers, with and without disabilities. This was the version included in the Festival d’Automne which I saw at the Théâtre de Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines: a huge proscenium-arch venue in the somewhat sci-fi utopian environs of Versailles University in the western suburbs of Paris.
Perhaps because of the venue, or perhaps the reputation of the show itself, the audience was a lot more ‘general public’/’family’/inclusive than at any of the other shows I saw in the Festival. This gave a very different (and more exciting) flavour to the event; in particular there was a lot more audience reaction to what took place (or didn’t taken place) onstage; which only confirmed the show’s enduring and evolving power to provoke.
The title of The Show Must Go On is an ironic reference to Bel’s previous work, Le Dernier Spectacle. It’s also, of course, a song by Queen, which itself features as the closing track in a show that consists essentially in a sequence of pop songs: ‘Tonight’ (from West Side Story); ‘Let the Sun Shine In’; ‘Come Together’; ‘Let’s Dance’; ‘I Like to Move It’; ‘Ballerina Girl’; ‘Private Dancer’; ‘Macarena’; ‘Into My Arms’; ‘My Heart Will Go On’; ‘Yellow Submarine’; ‘La Vie en Rose’; ‘Imagine’; ‘The Sound of Silence’; ‘Every Breath You Take’; ‘I Want Your Sex’; ‘Killing Me Softly’; and ‘The Show Must Go On’. It soon becomes apparent that the songs have been chosen not because of their musical quality (which is sometimes woeful) but because of their titles (which in most cases we already know, and in any case hear repeatedly during the song). These all contain descriptions or instructions that can be followed more or less literally by the choreography or staging (an exception is the choreography of ‘My Heart Go On’, which refers not to the title of the song but to the most famous and clichéd image in Titanic).
Each track is played in its entirety; and this deliberately un-theatrical use of time and ‘timing’ has a dramaturgical structure and effects of its own (suspense, predictability, boredom, frustration, tension, release) which are essential to the work.
The songs (in their most familiar recorded versions) are played by a DJ (who sits at the front of the stage with his back to us) with a CD player and visible stack of CDs, which are gradually transferred from left to right in the course of the show. He takes his time loading and unloading the CDs, and each track is played in its entirety; and this deliberately un-theatrical use of time and ‘timing’ has a dramaturgical structure and effects of its own (suspense, predictability, boredom, frustration, tension, release) which are essential to the work.
The show begins with a slow fade to blackout; ‘Tonight’ is then played entirely in darkness. Already I could feel tension mounting in the audience as the lights refused to come up. They slowly did during ‘Let the Sun Shine In’, revealing a stage that remained empty throughout the song. A little boy sitting on my right shifted onto his dad’s knee and began dancing and singing along, and there was some rhythmic clapping from the audience, followed by applause as the DJ unhurriedly changed the CD. ‘Come Together’ began to play, and the cast of 22 duly entered from the wings, formed a semi-circle facing the audience (who duly applauded) and then did nothing else until the song came to an end. It was the same piece of ‘choreography’ quoted in ‘Pichet Klunchun’ and ‘Disabled Theatre’, but here performed as an ensemble piece following the ‘instructions’ of the song-title – enriched by the inclusion of several performers with disabilities, including two in wheelchairs, and two with missing or partial limbs (I felt a certain unease at this among the audience, and glanced at the little boy beside me, but he seemed untroubled). There was also a carefully curated race and gender diversity among the cast – as well as in dance skills, as soon became apparent, when they launched into the next track, ‘Let’s Dance’, and began simultaneously yet individually dancing to the title words whenever they were repeated, but otherwise remained motionless (again as in ‘Pichet Klunchun’).
By now the audience were thoroughly warmed up and into the show; but Bel continued to play with our expectations. ‘I Like to Move It’ involved some exuberant shaking of bodies parts that managed to be sexy, hilarious and confronting, not least because of the disabled participants; ‘Private Dancer’ brought the DJ to the stage for his own spot-lit moment of bedroom solipsism; Nick Cave’s ‘Into My Arms’ involved a repeated sequence of wandering followed by random pairing off and embracing that came perilously close to sentimentality (and again was given extra resonance by the inclusion of the disabled performers).
After ‘My Heart Goes On’, with its ludicrous (and crowd-pleasing) re-enactment of the scene from Titanic, came the most challenging section of the show. For ‘Yellow Submarine’, the performers left the stage and sang along from the wings, while yellow light spilled onto the empty stage – which (along with the auditorium) was then flooded with pink for ‘La Vie en Rose’ (the audience duly began looking around and becoming conscious of each other and themselves). ‘Imagine’ plunged the house into blackout again, and once more tension began to mount as we were invited to listen to the words of the song and obey them. (Some people took out their mobile phones at this point, turned on their torch apps and began waving them around.)
Then came ‘The Sound of Silence’. The opening line, ‘Hello darkness my old friend’, got a few laughs, as the blackout was maintained, and people began singing along; but then the DJ turned the volume down to zero after the phrase ‘the sound of silence’ was heard, and made us listen to the silence. He kept the CD spinning, and must have kept count on the timer, raising the levels again every time the title phrase was repeated and then lowering them to silence again. After a while, the audience began quietly singing the missing words in unison to fill in the gaps. It was a strange atmosphere, somewhere between protest and participation; and I felt the crowd becoming uneasy, but good-humouredly embracing the spirit of things.
For ‘Every Breath You Take’ and ‘I Want Your Sex’, the lights came back up onstage (and in the auditorium), and the performers returned and stood in a line at the front of the stage, staring directly at the audience. Once again, I was reminded of Disabled Theatre: we were no longer voyeurs, or even participants, but objects of the gaze ourselves. This was followed by a sequence during which the performers donned headphones and danced to their own inaudible devices, sporadically yelling out lines from individual songs (‘I can’t get no…’, ‘I’m too sexy…’, ‘I’m still standing…’, etc); once more the performers became objects, eliciting relieved laughter. ‘Killing Me Softly’ saw them lip-syncing and sinking to the floor, as Bel himself had done in Pichet Kluncun – but this time in a more sinister kind of mass death.
Then came the final track: Freddie Mercury singing ‘The Show Must Go On’. The performers continued lying in a heap; then they began to rise as the title phrase rang out, advanced to the front of the stage, bowed and exited, returning again and again as the audience rose and continued to applaud.
As I rose to leave, so did the little boy beside me. His dad helped him with his jacket, and I realised for the first time that he was missing part of his right arm. I hadn’t seen it till now because I was sitting to his left. I followed them out of the theatre and down the street back to the train station. The boy was leaping around his dad, full of excitement about the show. It had been, in every sense, a performance for everyone.
Un Spectacle en moins is a new work commissioned by the Festival and was developed over three weeks of workshop and critical feedback sessions with members of the public (unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend any of these sessions). The title roughly translates as One Spectacle Less; in fact it’s only show I saw in the ‘Portrait’ series that doesn’t have an English title.
In the Festival program Bel remarks that after creating a series of recent works that became increasingly ‘spectacular’ in form and scale, he didn’t want to ‘go any further’ down this path and become ‘trapped’ (or even ‘skilled’) in ‘making spectacles’, but on the contrary to make something ‘as unspectacular as possible’ – or from a political perspective, to make a work (or a show) ‘without power’. He also chose to make and show the work at La Commune in Aubervilliers, one of the poorest suburbs on the outskirts of Paris.
It took me about an hour to get there by train and bus on a Sunday, and when I emerged from the RER station I found myself in a very different neighbourhood from the Espace Cardin, the Pompidou Centre or even Yvelines. The people in the street or the shops were mostly non-white, and mostly spoke Arabic or an African language, and the buildings were mostly run-down featureless post-War high-rise public housing or institutions (I counted at least one hospital). This was a very different Paris from the gentrified and tourist playground of the inner city.
When I arrived at the brutalist concrete structure of La Commune and perused the marketing material in the foyer, its programming appeared to be more overtly political and community-orientated than any of the other venues I’d visited. Nevertheless, the crowd that gathered for Un Spectacle en Moins appeared to the same predominately white middle-class dark-clad hipsters (young and old) that I’d seen at the Pompidou Centre. At least, I thought, we all had to travel to get here and see how the other half lives.
After a few minutes people in the audience became restless; two people behind me couldn’t stop muttering.
Bel was in the theatre when we entered, sporting the same scruffy work-clothes, hair and beard he’d had in Pichet Klunchun and Myself two weeks earlier (the hair and beard were a little scruffier). He loitered between the front row of the auditorium and the stage until we were seated, then somewhat sheepishly thanked us for coming and explained that what we were about to see was not exactly what had been described in the Autumn Festival brochure, but that he had been compelled to give the show a title and some kind of description; in fact this was only the second performance, and he was still making adjustments, so we would be the first (and possibly only people) to witness it in its current form.
He announced he would begin by playing a recording of a radio interview with somebody about something (I didn’t pick up whom or what) and that this would be followed by four performance pieces; duly played the interview (the contents of which I found hard to follow) over the sound system (while nothing happened onstage); and then announced that he would now perform the first piece: a seated meditation, which he informed us would last for ten minutes.
He climbed up onto the stage, sat in a chair and closed his eyes. After a few minutes people in the audience became restless; two people behind me couldn’t stop muttering. I took the opportunity to focus my own attention. This I decided was the essence of what Bel was doing in all his shows, even the least spectacular: to teach the audience to watch, and to let the performer be seen.
Bel now invited ten volunteers from the audience onstage, led them upstage and gave them a task which the rest of the audience couldn’t hear. The volunteers then took five minutes to advance in a line slowly towards the front of the stage. Some wobbled or lost their bearing; one had to stop and lower his head for a few minutes before continuing, as if overcome; but they all made it; and so did we, despite a certain amount of restlessness and muttering.
Bel now invited ten more volunteers to join the initial cohort onstage (these were also invited to return to the audience if they wished, but most of whom volunteer to stay). Once again they were led to the back of the stage and given instructions we couldn’t hear. Then they came downstage centre and formed a group standing and sitting on the edge of the stage and the steps leading up to it, as if for a group photo; Bel himself climbed down off the stage and sat in the auditorium to watch. Then they began to count aloud slowly in unison while facing the audience. When they got to a hundred after a few minutes, they were greeted by cheers and applause; but they smiled and kept counting, and Bel turned and informed us that their instructions were to count to a thousand.
At this point several people in the audience got up and left; more followed when the two-hundred mark was passed and it became clear that Bel was in earnest. I was riveted. At one point Bel rose and gestured to the lighting desk to bring up the intensity of the lights slightly and focus them a little more tightly on the performers. At around the five-hundred mark the sense of achievement was palpable: the performers’ voices became stronger and their faces a little more determined, although one or two began to falter and then seemed to regain their self-control, solidarity and purpose. People in the audience began to clap along, and even join in the counting. When they reached one thousand (it must have taken about half an hour) there was a huge outburst of applause.
Bel thanked the participants, who returned to their seats. He now announced that the fourth and final piece would be a solo dance by him of indeterminate length, and that we were free to leave whenever we wished. He thanked us for attending, took off his shoes and jacket and placed them on the floor of the auditorium in a corner below the stage. Then he climbed back onstage, dragged out a small fold-back speaker from the wings and stood beside it, adjusting his proximity until it began to emit a single sustained tone of feedback. He began to move, very slowly and minutely; first one arm, then his head, then his torso; then he began sinking to the floor, where he continued to move, slowly, rolling, lying still for a while, rolling again, raising an arm, or a leg. It reminded me a little of the dance he had choreographed to Killing Me Softly, except that here the movements appeared to be unpremeditated and unrelated to any discernable content or meaning.After a minute or two, people began to leave. Possibly they had parking or transport issues; perhaps they thought they were meant to leave; or perhaps they were bored. Bel remained totally focussed on what he was doing. After about fifteen minutes, he came to rest, sitting on the floor, and remained motionless for a moment, still inwardly focussed, as if collecting himself. Then he slowly got to his feet, stepped down from the stage, gathered his things and left.
‘Portrait: Jérôme Bel’ was part of the Autumn Festival in Paris, September–December 2017.
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