Monday, 12 February 2018

Postcard from Perth Festival 2 

Voices and Bodies





Opening Ceremony, Siren Song, Beyond Time, Repatriate, Museum of Water, Attractor


The opening week of the Perth Festival has me reflecting on voices and bodies: the voices and bodies of women, first nations and other minorities; the voices and bodies of non-artists, audiences and participants as well as artists, producers and curators. This is a Festival that gives space, time and even priority to these voices and bodies.

The opening ceremony Gnarnk-Ba Karla Waarnginy (‘Speaking Fires of our Mother’) took place at the west end of St George’s Terrace: hardly the most obviously scenic spot, despite what must once have been an impressive streetscape running eastwards through the CBD, and before that a glorious natural site overlooking the river beneath what was now King’s Park. It was now hemmed in by corporate high-rises obscuring the river and the park, and even dwarfing the Tudor-style convict-era relic of Barracks Archway that stands at the head of the Terrace, and in turn blocks the view of Parliament House behind it.

I sat on a low wall outside the new Channel 9 buildings with a group of onlookers, mostly older women. One of them told me she was in Perth because of the international golf tournament – she’d been a volunteer there for the last twenty years. She and her companions seemed to be regular Festival opening ceremony attendees. They proudly pointed out the branches of eucalypt that had been assembled beneath the temporary outdoor stage for the cleansing smoke-ritual, and remarked on the fact that this year the Noongar elders seated onstage to perform the Welcome to Country were all women – as were the dancers and singers who would be performing. Festival Director Wendy Martin was there amongst them, black hair and voluminous red scarf flying in the wind that barrelled down the ‘canyons of commerce’, as she called them. I wondered how the speakers and singers would cope with the eucalyptus smoke blowing straight into their faces – or for that matter how the helicopter that would soon be making its appearance to broadcast Siren Song would cope with the wind, and whether the sound of the sirens would prevail against it.


A gracious Welcome to Country speech from Noongar elder Aunty May McGuire acknowledged the generosity and inclusiveness of the Festival as well as gently reminding us of the history of violence, removal and segregation that haunted the site. She passed her ceremonial spear to Wendy; singer and dancer Rikeeta Walley took the stage; and a group of young women dancers, Kwarbah Djookian, crept through the crowd and joined her. After several songs and dances (Wendy joined the last one) and a tribal pop song by Honey Webb, the melody from the last song was taken up by the disembodied voice of Karla Hart through the speakers above the stage, and I felt a wave of emotion as more women’s voices began to echo and canon the same musical phrase down the corridor of buildings along the Terrace, and the beautiful, mournful sound of Siren Song began. The focus drifted away from the stage, and people began to drift out into the street, gazing up into the sky in search of the source of the sound.

Moments later, a helicopter appeared above Barracks Arch, and a single amplified voice pierced the sky. It was a dramatic change of tone, the source of the sound suddenly becoming visible in the form of this almost malevolent insect-machine, with its associations of war and conflict, reminding me that all was not sweetness and light. Like so many sacred sites across the country, this was a place of violence as well celebration; and the Sirens themselves, lest we forget, were harbingers of death as well as voices of seduction.

As the crowd applauded and dispersed, I wondered how Siren Song would affect the city over the next ten days, sounding each dawn and dusk, reminding its inhabitants of less comfortable times and places.

*

Alongside the sense of celebration and inclusiveness, then, there’s a more determined, uncompromising, even unflinching aspect to this Festival: an inner toughness in its acknowledgement of hard truths. This is evident in the choice of Beyond Time – which I went to straight from the Opening Ceremony and debut of Siren Song – as the opening show of the Festival. It’s a demanding, even austere production, that doesn’t pander to its audience, but makes us work almost as hard as its performers.

As I learned to my surprise when I opened the program, Taiwanese company U-theatre has its origins in the work of Grotowski, the Polish avant-garde director and teacher who sought to reconnect theatre with its origins in ritual and a sense of the sacred. Closer to home, the work of the company is grounded in Taoist philosophy – and more literally in the company’s base on Laochaun Mountain near Tapei. Drumming and meditation are the core of their training as well as their creative and performance methodology; and while watching them I was reminded of the fact that war and conflict – in the form of martial arts – lie at the heart of moving meditation practices like Tai Chi, just as the fact of suffering lies at the heart of Buddhism (as it does in the case of Christianity and the other monotheistic religions). As such, it’s rich material for drama. Despite its search for serenity and peace, there’s nothing supine or pacifistic about The Way.

The show unfolds in a sequence of scenes – the titles are listed in the program as ‘A Downpour’, ‘Reflection of the Moon on A Thousand Rivers’, ‘Wading Through the Air’, ‘The Eclipse’, ‘The Vortex’ and ‘Beyond Time’, and are followed by short poetic descriptions that refer somewhat elliptically to events and experiences in nature, the mind and the cosmos. As such I’m reminded of a cycle of Chinese nature poems like those that inspired Mahler’s Song of the Earth – but in this case we don’t hear any of the words in the performance, which indeed doesn’t directly refer to them at all. Instead we are presented with a series of movement-tableaux, alternately peaceful and violent, accompanied by live drumming and percussion (sometimes the drumming is the movement and the image in one). Set, lighting, movement, image and sound are all spectacular; there’s even a huge backdrop on which abstract images of a moon and later falling rain are projected. The physical and musical skills of the performers are prodigious, but (apart from the set and lighting, and the visual and spatial orientation of the staging) there’s a sense that none of this is being performed for our benefit, so much as for the performers themselves – or rather, for itself, since they are to all intents and purposes its servants. As such, we are witnessing a form of meditation in action; and the task demands a corresponding degree of focused, disciplined meditation from us.

Personally I could have dispensed with the accoutrements of lighting and set, beautiful as they were, since these seemed more like concessions to the circumstances of cultural consumption, while the essence of the work seemed to me to be the bodies of the performers - and by extension their instruments, including the literal skins of the drums. Indeed, I found myself transported – if not beyond time, then beyond the stage and auditorium of His Majesty’s – to somewhere outdoors, in nature, or at least, in my mind; somewhere beyond narrative or conceptual discourse; a place of pure embodiment.

Apparently the work was developed after the company embarked on a 38-day trek from the north to the south of the island of Taiwan. Appropriately, the day after opening night, the Festival hosted a free early-morning participatory walk in King’s Park led by the director of the company Liu Ruo-Yu. Regretfully the Festival Navigator failed to attend. Other events and other forms of participation awaited him the following day.

*

The body – and more specifically her own brown female body – is at the centre of Australian-Tongan visual and performance artist Latai Taumoepeau’s powerful video installation Repatriate at Fremantle Arts Centre. Seven small vertical iPad screens are arranged in a row along one wall of an artificial corridor down which only a single line of viewers can be accommodated at a time; you enter at either end, and have to wait your turn to move from screen to screen, and finally leave again. In the same room, but outside the corridor, a subtle but faintly ominous soundtrack plays; it’s hard to distinguish the sounds themselves, which could be mechanical or natural. On the screens, the same looped video plays, at different points in the loop, with the timings displayed at the bottom of each screen, from 00.00 to about 38.00 minutes, at which point the video fades to black. The video shows Taumoepeau in underpants and floaties dancing – or attempting to dance – using movements and gestures that appear to be derived from various South Sea Island traditions while sitting, standing, floating and eventually submerged in a Perspex water-tank which is being gradually filled by two streams of falling water. The top and sides of the tank are outside the frame of the image, which heightens the sense of entrapment – as does the claustrophobic set that frames the installation itself, and the spectator’s experience.

The effect is that of watching a kind of perverse vaudeville act – ‘woman in water-tank’ – from which there is no escape. The subject of the work is obviously the impact of climate change on the inhabitants of low-lying poverty-stricken non-white communities like those of the Pacific Islands; but it’s the emotional and even visceral impact of the work (as well as its artful staging) that makes it hard to tear oneself away from.

At the artist talk I attend, Taumoepeau identifies herself as a dancer who crossed over into visual art in order to express herself politically – which she describes as being unavoidable for artists who are women of colour, as their bodies are already politicised. The specific impetus for this work was her attendance at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali in 2007, where she also encountered other artists from affected island communities, and learned some of their movement traditions, which were subsequently incorporated into Repatriate. She also identifies her ancestors as ‘celestial navigators’; I can’t resist asking her what this means, and she talks about Tongan and other indigenous traditions of navigation that involve reading the stars and even feeling the tides with one’s hand.

Like Beyond Time, this is a work centred on the body – but in this case a singular, gendered, skin-coloured, politicized body, rather than the comparatively abstract, philosophical and even spiritual bodies that collectively make up U-Theatre. Interestingly Repatriate is also a video work rather than a work of live performance: in part because of the unrepeatable and even unendurable nature of what it represents; but also because as a work of visual art there’s something essentially solitary rather than communal about the experience of the viewer, even though that experience is necessarily conditioned by the presence of other viewers, especially in such a narrow viewing space. In effect Taumoepeau forces us to identify with her experience – including the essentially solitary experience of death – in a way that live performance could never accomplish.

*

Repatriate is situated as a kind of adjunct-work to Museum of Water, the remarkable brain-child of UK artist Amy Sharrocks currently housed at Fremantle Arts Centre, although after the Festival the collection will be preserved (insofar as that’s possible) by the new WA Museum. Having attended the opening last Wednesday evening, and then further talks and activities over the weekend, I find it’s a work that keeps on giving and expanding in my heart and mind like…well, ripples in a pond.

In fact this is its third iteration – previous versions took place in Bristol and Rotterdam – but the process of its creation and installation here in WA is unique. For the past two years a team of local artist-custodians have been travelling around Perth and the surrounding region with a trailer (designed by local theatre designer Zoe Atkinson) collecting samples of water donated by the public together with stories about those donations. The samples are still in the containers they were donated in, but a selection are displayed on a beautiful white raised wave-or-ripple-like topographic structure (also designed by Atkinson) that undulates through the main exhibition space. The viewing platform, exhibition space and entire Arts Centre have been lovingly lit by Martin Langthorne (including the use of lighting gels in some of the windows to tint the daylight streaming through), and the rooms and corridors also have a subtle immersive sound design by local musician and sound artist Rachael Dease that includes sound-samples of water, rain falling, and even field recordings she made of ice cracking in the Antarctic.

Down the corridor from the main gallery another room provides access to the stories from a catalogue of voice-recordings of the donors which can be access on iPads, and tables displaying postcards, photographs and other documents that were donated along with the samples. There’s also a permanent screening of four short films by local high school students on the theme of ‘water that is important to you’ that were commissioned and assisted by the Festival and Screen West. Adjacent to this room is another, sound-proof room (also designed by Atkinson) separated by a false wall with a window, which serves as an interview-room for further donors during the exhibition.

The ‘custodians’ (who are all incidentally women, and wear blue aprons, again designed by Atkinson) are also present to guide visitors and interview donors; and on Saturday mornings they present ‘morning yarns’ in which they share new acquisitions and stories. Beyond this, there’s a series of events, talks and other activities each weekend for the duration of the Festival.

It’s hard to know how to begin to describe the effects of this extraordinary multi-disciplinary, multi-platform work. Beyond the obvious current social, political and environmental resonances – in a week when Cape Town has just become the first city to officially run out of water because of climate change (a distinction which might previously have been expected of Perth, as the capital of Australia’s driest state) – there are all sorts of other resonances that seem to confirm the status of water as the elemental metaphorical substance par excellence of life, transience and emotion itself. Indeed I found myself deeply moved several time, listening to one of the custodians tell a story, reading one of the documents, watching one of the short films, listening to Amy Sharrocks and WA Museum CEO Alec Coles enthusiastically discussing ‘Future Museums: Ways of Sharing History’, or participating in a workshop called ‘Distilling Memory: Rosewater, the Festival Scent’ on how to make double-distilled rosewater with Iranian immigrants Mahin Nowbakht and Farangeez Ahmadi, inspired by Nowbakht’s gift to the museum, the vial of rosewater and packet of dried damask-rose petals she brought to Australia in her suitcase.

A custodian tells the story of a schoolgirl donating a jar half-filled with water containing a paper boat, and struggling with tears to tell the story of how she’s now spent half her life living in Perth separated from her family back in the UK. A photograph of a well in Turin is accompanied by a piece of paper with a typed account of how the donor’s grandmother used to meet her lover by the well before her family arranged a marriage for her and she moved to Australia. A short film by a high-school student shows images of him interacting with water in various ways – washing, cooking, drinking – while his voiceover tells the story of how he was mistrustful of tap water when he first came to Australia because in Indonesia water had to be laboriously collected and boiled. Alec Coles explains how the water travelling up the pipeline inland to Kalgoorlie built by the legendary engineer C.Y.O’Connor is now desalinated water from the Indian Ocean – and I reflect on the fact that it’s the same Indian Ocean into which O’Connor later rode his horse and shot himself, so that in a sense his molecules are now feeding the desert heart. A man distilling rosewater with me in the Arts Centre courtyard explains that he’s visiting his mother in Perth but now lives in Kyoto where he studies Japanese gardening; he plans to visit Iran, and tells me that word ‘paradise’ comes from an old Iranian word meaning ‘a walled garden’.

Beyond the images, objects, samples of water and even their containers (which are also metaphors for the fragile vessel of the body itself), Museum of Water is a collection of stories; and as with Siren Songs, driven by the power of voices. This was brought home to me most vividly on Sunday morning, when I participated in the Walyalup Water Walk along the Fremantle shoreline, led by Noongar artist and storyteller Sharyn Egan, and accompanied by singer and sound artist Mei Sarawati, musician Matt Aitken and the Koondarm Choir. Listening to the songs of First Nations peoples, and hearing stories about coastal land-features and broken songlines, I understand more clearly than ever before how country and story, body and voice are one. Sharyn tells the story of how a giant ancestor – some say a crocodile, but she thinks a specimen of megafauna, and I speculate about a giant goanna – came down from the north and did battle with the river snake Waugul who bit off his tail; how that became the natural limestone barrier that partially blocked off the mouth of the Swan River and made it suitable for fishing by Wadjuk-Noongar people; how O’Connor dynamited the barrier to make the harbour deep enough for commercial shipping; and how this led to the salination of the river and its ecosystem upstream.

As Mei, Matt and the choir sing, I notice artist Amy Sharrocks become emotionally overwhelmed, and feel myself similarly affected. ‘It’s the idea of these voices,’ she shares with me, ‘connecting us all across the world,’ and she tells me a story about her daughter back in the UK singing a Nina Simone song – ‘a white girl singing a black woman’s music, and being connected through it to women everywhere’. Later on the walk, before leading us all in a song about knowing your cultural roots, Matt Aitken says: ‘We’re all indigenous from somewhere.’

*
From voices back to bodies again – and the participatory dance/trance work Attractor. It’s an exercise in pre-personal, tribal group-identity that crosses the boundary between performers and audience and doesn’t use words, but employs voice in a singular and heightened way.

Created by Melbourne choreographers Lucy Guerin and Gideon Obarzanek for eight dancers from Townsville-based company DanceNorth in collaboration with live Indonesian music duo Senyawa, the work is inspired by a trip Obarzanek took to Java where he witnessed a ritual trance ceremony during which members of the community became possessed by the spirits of the dead and were then exorcised by shamans. In the last fifteen minutes of the show, volunteers from the audience who’ve been equipped before the show with earpieces delivering unrehearsed verbal tasks join the dancers onstage. Needless to say, your Festival Navigator couldn’t resist being one of them.

It’s an extraordinary concept; Guerin’s distinctive, tightly-wound choreography is gripping; Obarzanek’s interest in formal hybridity is everywhere in evidence (especially at the end); the dancers are phenomenally skilled and committed; and the musicians are transfixing – one playing an amplified hand-made string instrument, the other doing amplified vocals inspired in equal measure by heavy metal, traditional throat-singing and animalistic grunts and growls (one powerful duet involves a solo dancer contorting her body as if possessed in interaction with the vocalist). As with Beyond Time, the work unfolds as a series of scenes, which have no particular narrative or thematic content other than an evolving relationship between individuals and the group, insiders and outsiders, which eventually expands to include the audience participants.

I loved being a part of this work, and wished I could have seen it again without being a participant; a friend and colleague who came with me had exactly the opposite wish; such is the nature of desire; but we made up for it by comparing notes on our experiences afterwards. As a performer, I found myself in a fascinating borderline state of threshold-consciousness during the first part of the performance while sitting beside my friend in the audience watching the action onstage and waiting for my cue to join in. As for sharing the stage with the dancers, following the instructions and losing myself: pure joy.  

*



Thursday, 8 February 2018

Postcard from Perth Festival 2018: 1


Navigating Time

I begin writing this, my first blog post as Festival Navigator, while on the long haul back to Perth from Minneapolis: 7.5 hours across the US, the Atlantic and the British Isles to Paris; a 7-hour layover at Charles de Gaulle; then another 6.5 hours across Europe and Turkey to the Middle East; another 3 hours at Doha; and then the final 11.5 hour flight across the Indian Ocean. The long, broken route is for artistic and personal reasons; I’ve been away for almost 3 months. On the flights I alternate between reading, napping, gazing down at the clouds, the ocean or the changing land, and reflecting on the journey I’ve been on, and the one ahead.

Fifteen years ago I drove to Perth from Melbourne in 6 days and nights. I was moving to a new home, and I wanted to experience the transition at ground-level, in my body, so to speak (or at least the body of my battered old car). Then 3 years ago I’d gone overseas for 5 months – for professional development reasons, I thought at the time, but the trip turned out to be life-changing. The 3-month trip I’ve just been on is a kind of coda to the previous one, in some ways a kind of closing of the circle. I’m coming home again, but a new apartment, and a new (if temporary) job; more deeply, I’m coming back to myself, but also emerging from something, like someone waking up from a long sleep.

I feel a familiar thrill seeing the landscape below, the desert, the salt-lakes, the hills, the gleaming towers of the city by the yawning river, the wild blue ocean. When I emerge from the airport, the sky is as huge as ever. I spend the night in the Perth hills with family, sleep fitfully, and wake early to the shrieking birds, the dazzling light, and towering eucalypts outside the window.

I think about the grand title of ‘festival navigator’ that’s been bestowed on me, and the words jostle in my head. I think about the Latin word festa, meaning ‘feast’, and religious festivals and feasts, and saints’ days, and the Dionysiad, the ancient Greek festival in honour of the god of theatre, and wine, and excess. I think about the art of navigation in the era of cars and planes, and the great seafaring navigators of the past, and the Latin navis, meaning ‘ship’. I think about festivals as celebrations of place, and cities like Athens, and Adelaide, and Perth, and the gathering of multitudes at a regular time and place to honour something, or somewhere, or someone, as in the Latin celebrare, meaning ‘frequented’ or ‘honoured’. I think about festivals as interruptions or suspensions of normality in time, too, and of normal relationships with time and place: bingeing on shows and events, the onslaught of visiting artists and audiences, and the transformation of a city, making it visible in a different light. I think about time as an arrow and time as a cycle, and the cycles of nature and the seasons, on which the cycles of life, and history, and culture are based.

How am I going to navigate this Festival – to navigate myself and others through the next four weeks? How have I navigated myself through other festivals, or tasks, or times in my life? Perhaps beyond navigation in space there’s a navigation of time, a kind of personal dramaturgy, that we all do, in certain periods of our lives, and even eras in history, like the current era of crisis we’re all living through, regardless of our age or generation. (I think about Strauss and Howe’s theory of generations and ‘turnings’, so beloved by the egregious Steve Bannon, and how according to them I’m a member of Gen X, an aptly named ‘nomad’ generation, like the ‘lost generation’ of Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway before me.) Perhaps being a Festival Navigator means being a kind of dramaturg, accompanying others into unknown terrain, pointing out and mapping certain known or at least familiar landmarks or features, observing and recording others yet unknown.

An overview, then: hunched in my passenger seat somewhere over the Indian Ocean, I peer into my laptop, toggling between my densely packed Festival Navigator itinerary of events over the coming days, nights and weeks, and the pages of the Festival website. There are the familiar categories: theatre, dance, music, exhibitions, opening ceremonies, free events, the Writers Festival and Lottery West Film Festival; and there are the less obvious, more entangled, interconnected programs offering audiences and local artists opportunities to participate in the Festival more actively, like the schools and education programs, guest artist residencies and workshops (I’ll be participating in one of these), making guest appearances in shows (I’ll be doing three of these), assisting in the installation of guest visual artists’ works, attending pre-and-post-show chats and thematic weekend conversations with artists (I’ll be hosting two of these), local project development workshops and showings supported by the Festival, the Museum of Water program, various themed walks hosted by artists and scientists, the Young Creatives and Lab programs for local teenage and emerging artists, and the Industry Pass offering discount tickets to shows and other events.

Beyond the obvious jewels in the programming, this more hidden agenda of grass-roots seeding and responsiveness to Perth itself - this sense of place – seems to me to be the most distinctive feature of Wendy Martin’s Perth Festival (renamed this year after previously being Perth International Festival of the Arts). Artistically there’s also a readiness to cross boundaries and build bridges between artists and audiences, companies and art-forms, traditions, cultures, communities and places beyond Perth – especially in the region we share around the Indian Ocean rim – which seems all the more vital in an era of increasing social divisiveness and identity politics. I find myself thinking of the slogan of the airline I’m flying with, ‘there are no borders in the sky, only horizons’ – perhaps a response to the current embargo and isolation of their home country by neighbouring states, but inescapably reminding me also of global mass migration in response to war, oppression, poverty and climate change.

Perhaps artists themselves are a kind of navigators, inventing navigation tools and landscapes to navigate their (and our) lives and times. Perhaps producers, curators, artistic and even festival directors can be navigators too, supporting artists, works and programs that provide imaginary maps for us to lose and find ourselves in, navigating journeys through time and space, outer as well as inner journeys - personal, artistic, political and spiritual, sacred and profane.

I look more closely at the Festival artist-navigators from here and overseas, and note a few at random. Yeung Fai (Festival Artist-in-Residence), a Paris-based fifth-generation master of traditional glove puppetry who left China during the Cultural Revolution navigates the journey of his family, his art-form and his country using a mixture of traditional and contemporary puppetry in Handstories; he’s also reviving and touring The Puppet Show Man, a show he created in Bolivia, to local schools and community groups, and running a workshop for local artists in collaboration with Spare Parts Puppet Theatre. Russian writer and performer Evgeny Grishkovets navigates a world from which actual letters and maps (the traditional tools of navigation) are disappearing in Farewell to Paper; inspired by the show, the Festival is also inviting local students to submit letters responding to the question ‘What will I miss?’ in a program entitled Letters of Farewell. Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour navigates his way across physical borders and language-barriers in Nassim, a task-based theatre work involving guest appearances by local performers. In the work of these artists and others it seems to me navigation provides both the form and substance of their works. Convenient metaphor, sign of the times, or serendipitous insight into one of the functions of art and perhaps the Festival itself?

*

A couple of days later, still groggy with jet-lag, I meet up with Festival Director Wendy Martin and her team. They welcome me and fill me in on their roles, and I become aware of how under the radar the Festival is already underway. Program Manager Jess Darlow tells the story of how last week she took some of the African-British actors from visiting UK production The Barbershop Chronicles to run a workshop with Sudanese students at the Edmund Rice Centre in the Perth suburb of Mirabooka.

The following night I’m at the opening of The Museum of Water at Fremantle Arts Centre on a balmy evening a world away from wintry Minnesota. In her opening speech, Wendy goes off script and tells the story of how one of the first donors to the collection was Mahin Nowbakht, an Iranian immigrant to Australia who brought in her suitcase a vial of purified water and a packet of dessicated damask-rose petals as her most precious possession. A bottle of rosewater was her gift to the collection; she’s giving a workshop on distilling rosewater entitled ‘The Art of Memory’ as part of the Museum events this weekend; and damask rose is this year’s Festival scent.

The following night I’m at the Festival’s pop-up outdoor live-music venue the Chevron Gardens beside the Swan River on Festival Eve. Overhead a helicopter is ‘rehearsing’ for Sirens: Melbourne sound-artist Byron J Scullin and curatorial team Supple Fox will be broadcasting the sound of women’s voices singing from speakers mounted beneath the helicopter as it navigates the skies of Perth above the CBD every dawn and dusk for the first ten days of the Festival as people arrive at work and leaving again at the end of the day. The first performance will be at dawn tomorrow after a welcome-to-country ceremony by local Noongar women elders.

There’s a sense of anticipation in the air.

*

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Postcard from Paris: Jérôme Bel




‘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 fifteen 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).

Bel has remarked in an interview that he refuses most offers or requests from companies or individuals to create works for them, but that after watching a video of the Theater HORA ensemble in performance he felt compelled to do so. Initially he employed a question-and-answer technique he’d used previously in collaborations with other performers in order to generate text and movement, but here the process only yielded brief and ‘almost incomprehensible’ responses. So he utilized ‘a tool that all bad choreographers fall back on’: namely to invite each performer to do a dance to a piece of music of their choice. 

In fact the final structure of the show is much more subtle than this suggests, but like all Bel’s work it’s at once deceptively simple and profoundly complex in its ramifications. 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).

Even before the cast began to enter, then, our attention is drawn to the problematic nature of the enterprise. Leaving aside the question of the title itself, we are made aware that this is a scripted (or at least scored) work, and the inevitable fact of rehearsal, repetition and representation this entails: the performances are at least to some extent ‘rehearsed’, the performers ‘repeating’ and even ‘representing’ themselves. We are also reminded of the inevitable inequalities of power between the performers and Bel, the translator/repetiteur (who in a sense ‘represents’ Bel) and ourselves. Disabled Theatre doesn’t seek to avoid these questions or problems: on the contrary, by exacerbating them it compels us to think about and even ‘through’ them – without being able to ‘think them through’.

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.

In a sense all Bel’s work (and perhaps all theatre) can be reduced to the staging of this simple event of ‘being looked at’. In the context of Disabled Theatre however it also immediately raises the question of the ethics of looking (and staging the event) as it involves performers whom we might not ‘normally’ be comfortable about looking at or putting onstage precisely because of their ‘abnormality’. Once again this raises broader questions about representation, marginalisation, responsibility and power.

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.’

I found myself thinking about notions of competence, work, acting and authenticity: what does it mean to speak, to work, to be an actor, to be oneself – competently or otherwise? With the introduction of language into the performance, I was reminded of the scripted nature of what I was watching, and that the performers were in a sense ‘playing themselves’. I was also reminded of the fact of translation – not only from French into German (and back again) but also in the context of interpreting ‘disabled’ speech – and therefore, once again, the problem of representation (as the old Italian adage has it, traduttore, traditore – ‘translator, traitor’).

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. It got me thinking about the politics of naming, and the title of the work itself – which is also in English, like many of Bel’s titles. Was ‘disabled theatre’ simply a ‘bad translation’; a cultural difference between French and English usage; a deliberate flouting of political correctness; or an ironic reference to theatre itself being ‘disabled’ – i.e. having its ‘normal’ power-relations problematized and deconstructed?

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 them because of their disabilities. On the other hand, by giving the performers a voice, and the opportunity to contest Bel’s judgement, the work invited us to make our own judgements (however subjective these too might be) about 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 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.

As such, it’s one of a series of ‘portraits’ co-created by Bel between 2000 and 2009 in collaboration with individual dancers whom he wanted to ‘place in the role of being authors’ of works they themselves performed, while he attributed only the role of ‘conception’ to himself. (In some ways ‘conceptual artist’ is a better description of what Bel does than ‘choreographer’, since he himself states that hasn’t created more than four or five ‘steps’ of original choreography in his entire career.) Like their namesake in painting, these ‘portraits’ are also reflections on the art of dance or theatre itself (in another interview Bel refers to the distinction between the two as being merely ‘verbal’). In a sense then the entire Autumn Festival ‘Portrait: Jérôme Bel’ could be seen as a kind of self-portrait – which like the greatest visual artworks in that tradition from Dürer to Rembrandt manages paradoxically to be non-narcissistic, pitilessly objective, wryly humorous and deeply revealing.

In fact the question-and-answer technique Bel developed to make these portraits was also used to make Disabled Theatre, which thus became a kind of ‘group-portrait’ of the Theater HORA ensemble. The decisive difference in the case of Pichet Klunchun and Myself lies in the last two words of the title (which like Disabled Theatre is in English), since this work very directly includes a self-portrait. As such it serves as a kind of ‘primer’ for viewing Bel’s entire oeuvre.

Bel has said in interviews that he doesn’t like spending a lot of time in rehearsals; he prefers to write or score the show on his own beforehand and then simply get the performers to carry out the tasks he’s prescribed. In the case of Pichet Klunchun and Myself, they only had a limited time to make the work, so it was decided that rather than writing or scoring it in detail, they would simply use Bel’s questionnaire and then improvise their (verbal and physical) responses. These apparently still vary to some extent from one performance to the next, which evidently keeps the sense of play alive between them. Of course it’s undecidable to the audience precisely when or if this happens, which adds to the sense of play between them and us.

One of the differences that Bel seeks to deconstruct in his work is that between ‘making’ and ‘showing’; or even more precisely, between ‘rehearsal’ and ‘performance’; and beyond these properly aesthetic distinctions, more epistemological or even ontological ones between fiction and truth, past and present, or presence and absence. There’s also a deconstruction of the differences between authorship and collaboration, teaching and learning, pedagogy and making work. Finally, as well as criticising the ‘merely verbal’ distinction between theatre and dance, Bel is making a more subtle critique of the separation between art, philosophy and politics, since he is in fact doing all three. Indeed one could do worse than to borrow Brecht’s term Lehrstücke (‘teaching pieces’) in order to describe his shows.

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; despite the visual-spatial and cultural gulf between them, there’s more common ground – and a more even distribution of power – between Bel and Klunchun that with the actors of Theater HORA, which makes what follows both less confronting and more slyly subversive.)

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.  

We might add (though Bel doesn’t mention this) that Louis actually sent an emissary to the Thai court, who wrote a detailed description of khon; so there’s a direct historical link between the two traditions and cultures. We might also add that until the late 17th century French ballet (like Thai court dance, and indeed most Western theatre from Greek Tragedy to Shakespeare) was performed exclusively by men. Both these facts lend an extra layer of irony to the encounter between the two men onstage, which is only enriched by what follows.

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. Correspondingly, I felt a shift in my own (and the audience’s collective) level of responsiveness from verbal-linguistic to visual-spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic and emotional forms of processing; and in the political economy of the show to a more Symbolic form of exchange between the two artists.

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, the differences between Thai and Western culture, and between traditional and contemporary artistic practice. 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 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 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.

Bel now offers to demonstrate another of the favourite things he’s made – which, not coincidentally, 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’, then 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, and 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’. After a couple of cheeky feints, provoking further demurrals from Kunchun, 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 – 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, built in the 90s but conceived in the 70s as part of the ‘National Stages’ project of cultural and institutional decentralisation. It proved to be the perfect setting for the show.

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’. As such the show has the structure of a list: one of the simplest and most inconsequential structures imaginable. It soon becomes apparent that the songs in this list have been chosen not because of their musical qualities (which are 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 doesn’t refer to the title of the song but to the most famous and clichéd image in Titanic). In fact, as we shall see, the staging doesn’t always involve bodies or even light onstage at all.

The influences of Picasso, Duchamp, Rauschenberg and Warhol; ‘found-object’, ‘ready-made’, Pop, conceptual or performance art; and postmodern or ‘task-based’ contemporary dance on The Show Must Go On are too obvious to discuss. We’re familiar with the songs, and we soon learn the rules. As in Disabled Theatre the interest lies in the gap between concept and realisation, which is the space of play, freedom and the potential for meaning. This gap or space is made all the greater because of the diversity of performers and abilities, and accentuated by Bel’s low-fi minimalist aesthetic.

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 – and 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 were otherwise 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.

I thought about Freddie Mercury, death and the nature of performance. 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 un-spectacular possible’ – or from a more 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.

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 recent radio interview with somebody about something (I didn’t pick up who 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 in French) 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 inner and outer attention, and to tune my perceptual consciousness and capacity to observe. 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, Paris, September–December 2017.