Focus Jérôme Bel (Eng.)

Kaaitheater bulletin May 2002English

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‘It is the spectator who makes the performance.’

(Jérôme Bel)

‘Il y a donc une impasse de l’écriture, et c’est l’impasse de la société même: les écrivains d’aujourd’hui le sentent: pour eux, la recherche du non-style, ou d’un style oral, d’un degré zéro ou d’un degré parlé de l’écriture, c’est en somme l’anticipation d’un état absolument homogène de la société.’

(Roland Barthes, Le degré zéro de l’écriture)


1. The choreographer (we shall discuss the appropriateness of this word later) Jérôme Bel (1964) started his artistic career as a dancer with the Angelin Preljocaj, Daniel Larrieu, Joelle Bouvier and Régis Obadia companies. He entered into intensive creative collaboration with Caterina Sagna, then became assistant to Philippe Découflé for the opening festivities at the 16th Winter Olympics in Albertville in France in 1994. This experience left Bel with a great many questions: what was he actually doing? What was dance? How does one construct meaning on a stage?
His work with Découflé meant he had financial reserves on which he could live for two years if he was thrifty. He withdrew to his flat and started to read. Barthes, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Bourdieu and many more. He plundered the nearby library. Roland Barthes’ Le degré zéro de l’écriture (1953) convinced him that he had to start working from zero with no aim in mind. He did this at home, starting from the banal objects around him, and not in a dance studio, where previously acquired habits might have led him back to well-worn paths. His intellectual bases were the semiology of the linguist Saussure, Barthes’ structuralism, Foucault’s view of physicality as a domain determined by culture and history, and a critique of the consumer society and capitalism (which Bel himself now considers naive). His main aim was to reactivate the spectator, to start him thinking, and to make him into a coproducer of the performance. He developed his first project,

Nom donné par l’auteur (this is the definition you find in the dictionary when you look up the word ‘title’) together with his collaborator Frédéric Seguette in 1994. The two performers assemble all manner of household objects round a small rug: a ball, a dictionary, a torch, ice skates, a saltcellar, a hair-drier, a vacuum-cleaner, a banknote, a small table, a small chair, etc. In silence they combine and recombine these objects in various spatial arrangements, in their various possible forms of use: as if they wish to bring out every possible symbol/meaning which lies within each object… When this piece was first shown, a lot of spectators walked out. It was not understood; it was described as ‘dadaist’. Bel was advised to make a second performance to explain the first!
This was called Jérôme Bel (1995), in which he started with the question ‘what is dance?’. With which minimum of codes does a dance performance have to comply? In order to call it a dance performance there has to be a body; and music; and light. Body: there are two sorts of body: man and woman; in their primary form: naked. The zero line in music is the human voice: during the performance a woman will hum the whole of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, while another will bring on light in its most elementary form: a lightbulb. That which was done with the objects in Nom donné par l’auteur (the testing of all their uses and other possibilities) is here done by the two naked dancers with their own bodies. They do not get to dance, but Bel still sees this as a dance project. However cerebral his basic principles appear to be, the performance elicits strong emotional reactions.

‘Because it is organized, the body is not an organic, undifferentiated presence. The internal division of the body means that we are “several” to begin with (...) and permits confusion between self and other, mind and body.’

(Philip Auslander, From Acting to Performance)



We shall skip Shirtologie (1997), which was the chronological successor to Jérôme Bel, in order to pursue the lines of thought from Bel’s first two projects to Le Dernier Spectacle (1998) and Xavier Le Roy (2000). ‘After two performances I have still not produced any dance’, Bel thought, ‘so I shall just have to steal dance from others.’ On checking the legal implications of this, dance turned out to be the only art form for which there are no ‘quotation rights’; so Bel asked several choreographers whether they would lend him some dance material. The German expressionist choreographer Susanne Linke lent him an excerpt from her Wandlung (1978), to music from Franz Schubert’s Der Tod und das Mädchen. In Le Dernier Spectacle there are four characters, or should we call them ‘shells’? They are Jérôme Bel, the tennis star André Agassi, Hamlet and Susanne Linke. In the first part the performers confirm that they are one of these four; in the second part that they are not one of these four. In this light, Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ takes on a more than ironical meaning regarding individual identity. What could Bel possibly do after ‘his last show’ in order to find a final solution to the social role of choreographer that had been forced upon him? He asked one of his favourite colleagues, Xavier Le Roy, to make a performance in his place; Bel would simply sign the piece as its author and thus also own the rights to it. The piece was given the title Xavier Le Roy. This conceptual act undermined the essence of the market-defined notion of authorship. Or was Bel here once again following Barthes’ establishment of ‘the death of the author’? In today’s literature, says Barthes, there are no more authors, only readers.

‘L’utilisation de la citation chorégraphique est une de mes stratégies discursives (...). L’aspect écologique de la citation m’intéresse (recyclage). Elle me permet de mettre la danse moderne/ contemporaine en perspective (historicisation) et d’essayer de déterminer une ontologie de la représentation. La citation enfin me sert à pallier mon incapacité à produire de la danse.’

(Jérôme Bel, Sydney, 24th February 2000)



3. In Shirtologie (1997), Bel marked out a new direction in his work that was further developed in The Show must go on (what other title could he have thought of, having called his own previous piece Le Dernier Spectacle). Shirtologie (in the version created by Victoria in Ghent) is a sort of fashion show by twenty young people who keep on changing the T-shirts with texts that they are wearing; anyone who reads the successive T-shirts can ‘make sentences/sense’ in which contemporary youth mythology can be read; they are subversively appropriating capitalist publicity strategies to express their own world. The linear structure of the texts threaded together in Shirtologie is taken up again in The Show must go on: if one memorises the words of the successive pop songs, one can oneself construct a whole story. On the stage, twenty or so performers accompany/illustrate/show various movements, but sometimes the stage also remains empty or completely dark, or the only person on it and/or visible is the DJ. The spectator may/can fill in what he thinks is missing, using his own imagination. In Bel’s working philosophy, Shirtologie and The Show must go on are related by the pursuit of a zero point in the ‘craft’ (many of the performers are on stage for the first time), by the play with language as a system of signs and by a deliberate emphasis on activating the spectator’s role.

‘Performance’s only life is the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction, it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology. Performance’s being, like the ontology of subjectivity proposed here, becomes itself through disappearance.’

(Peggy Phelan, UNMARKED , the politics of performance.)



Although its roots lie in philosophical, sociological and linguistic-semiological theories, Bel’s work appears exceedingly simple (to some people even simplistic); his clarity of thought, the precision of his concepts, his ability to put things into perspective and his humour carry the audience along and at the same time confuse it. As Bel says, ‘I strive for clarity and unambiguousness with a scientific rigidity.’ Even though he knows that several of the questions he asks had already been put and/or answered long ago in other art forms (e.g. the plastic arts), he still thinks it is right to continue to ask them with regard to the performing arts. Questions regarding the priority of the concept over the work itself, regarding identity, role and character, regarding authorship, quotation and recycling, regarding the boundaries and/or zero line of every discipline and its practitioners, etc. He repeatedly returns to the beating heart of theatre with lucidity and enthusiasm: the present state of affairs regarding what is taking place in a theatre space and the leading part the spectator plays in it.

‘An etymological scrutiny of the term ‘theatre’ shows that from the Greek root théâ (‘watching, play’) theãsthai is formed: ‘looking, watching’. From which may be concluded that not the object of observation is the source of theatre but the subject of the spectator. The historical understanding of this term is concurrent with the assumption: the inner theatre always determines the perception of the outer theatre.’

(Helmut Ploebst, No Wind No Word)



(Translation Gregory Ball)