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Jérôme Bel's The Show Must Go On (2001). Photo by Mussacchio Laniello.

Theatricality and Amateurism with Catherine Wood and Jérôme Bel: Part II

Theatricality and Amateurism with Catherine Wood and Jérôme Bel: Part II

Jérôme Bel’s The Show Must Go On (2001). Photo by Mussacchio Laniello.

Editor’s Note: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage commissioned the following short, two-part interview between Tate Modern curator Catherine Wood and choreographer Jérôme Bel as part of the research for a book tentatively titled, “The Language of Contemporary Live Performance,” co-edited by Paula Marincola and Shannon Jackson (University of California, Berkeley). In Part I, Wood and Bel discussed the concept of “theatricality.” Part II is on “amateurism.”

Catherine Wood: In making so-called “non-dance,” is it or was it a concern of yours to move dance away from a perception of “elitism,” in the sense that you do not prioritize showing off the trained skill of, say, a ballet dancer, or a Cunningham-trained dancer, but rather deconstruct their presence as such, via personal narrative (Véronique Doisneau, 2004, or Cédric Andrieu, 2009) or by giving the stage to “bad”/club dancing (The Show Must Go On, 2001 and 2004) or those who are non-dancers altogether (Disabled Theater, 2012)?

Jérôme Bel: The syntagm “non-dance” is not relevant for me. This is the invention of a lazy journalist. (Please don’t use it anymore, dear Catherine!) My strategy was to bring the performer on stage closer to the reality of the spectator. My aim was to work on issues that could be those of the audience. I wanted to create a greater identification of the spectators to the performers by de-skilling them. Skills are only exciting for the (stupid) performers themselves and the specialized audience (the elite? I am not sure!). But in a way, if you are an artistically ambitious artist, you need to please both the elite and express your political stand on equality. This is a difficult equation, but this is the one you have to resolve.

Skills concern craft, which bores me; I find this decadent. I try not to use the skills of the performers and that is why I started to work with amateurs. If I have to work with very skilled performers—like Véronique Doisneau from the Ballet of the Paris Opera, Cédric Andrieux from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, or Pichet Klunchun from the Khôn tradition—I ask them to do something at which they are not skilled at all: I ask them to talk. The Show Must Go On is the perfect example of this strategy of de-skilling, as all the performers (professional dancers and amateurs) are dancing as though they are in a club or at a party, but doing so in a theater in front of an audience who has paid for tickets. With Disabled Theater, the work with the mentally disabled actors, I reach the ultimate point maybe. In fact, I have been disabling dance since the beginning.

CW: Where amateurism features in your work (would you even use the term amateurism for non-skilled dance?), do you understand it as a “readymade”? It seems to me that you have less of a fantasy of neutrality/authenticity than was seen in Paxton/Rainer importing “ordinary” movement?

JB: Yes, I use ready-made dances, absolutely. I don’t know about Paxton and Rainer. I should think about this.

CW: In stopping Véronique Doisneau from just dancing and having her speak, perhaps you move from one kind of elitism (ballet) towards another (the game of conceptual art, which disappoints those who just like the dancing)? You can’t win!

JB: Disappointment is part of the game. My work has been often characterized as deceptive. This deception is part of my strategy. In order to gain something, you have to lose something else. So the dramaturgy is often to disappoint first the expectation of the audience, to start from zero again, and then you can, maybe, build something new with the audience. You have to destroy the dream of the audience, its desire, which is most of the time the recognition of what they like, in order to prepare them for a new experience.

Jérôme Bel’s Veronique Doisneau (2004). Photo by Anna Van Kooji.

CW: How do you think about the term “amateur”?

JB: The amateur is the one “qui aime” (who likes), etymologically speaking. The professional is the one who works for money and maybe who doesn’t like anymore. The amateur hasn’t any knowledge, and usually he or she does what I ask perfectly well. Professionals, unfortunately, have naturalized many ways of being on stage; being contemporary dancers, they are not aware of this anymore. I think it is disgusting because they are reproducing the same thing again and again without being conscious of it. For me, this is a nightmare—that’s how I discovered that contemporary dance was dead!

CW: Could I possibly press you to reflect on the Judson difference at all? Is Paxton’s importing of ordinary walking a similar strategy to your found club dance, tennis playing, or disabled theater? Or does he believe in transparency or purity of neutral movement, which is the opposite of these ready-made styles/forms?

JB: Well, I think the ’60s /’70s and the ’90s/’00s were different times, but the operation is the same. There is maybe a pre-cultural industry era, and la société du spectacle. My esthetic is a Warholian version of Paxton’s esthetic. But when I saw Satisfying Lover, I remember I thought that I should have done this piece! It was so perfect. But in fact, I did a piece incorporating pop songs, [such as] “Let’s Dance” or “I Like to Move It.”

CW: Regarding Judson versus now, I like your Paxton-after-Warhol characterization (even if Warhol had thought of all this at the same time: we just took five decades to understand him!). I am very interested in how art, historically speaking, often goes through a process of reiteration to be understood: how the ideas of the ’60s are immediately rejected by the next generation (late ’70s/’80s) but are reiterated/revitalized from the ’90s in ways that deepen our appreciation of the original work, and add to it. I think the seeds of Warholian knowingness were already there for Rainer/Paxton (consciousness of the image, of the fakeness of ordinariness as a style), but somehow that knowingness has been submerged in our historical understanding of them, so that we believe that they only believed in authenticity in a naive way. However, your work seems—to me—to draw out and exaggerate/go further with that implicit seed of ready-made-ness and make it of our time completely.

Go to Part I >