Uncomfortable Conceptual Entertainment

By Amanda DiLodovico and Mark Franko

Theater Hora Jerome BelPresenting a piece with actors who have “learning difficulties and disabilities” at New York Live Arts (November 12-17, 2013), a dance institution, is without precedent for not only Jérôme Bel, but also the professional dance community at large. It is informative to compare Disabled Theater to Bel’s first great hit, The Show Must Go On, because the latter work uses a lineup of non-dancers to explore the hyper-lyrical and effusive performativity of the Broadway show. We listen to the first number — “Tonight, tonight” from West Side Story – in total darkness, and I at least found myself (at a recent viewing in Zürich) projecting phantasms into the darkness, imprinting a spectacle onto a non-spectacle, seeing where there is nothing to see. What Bel makes us realize is that the investment of the audience in “the show” is immense, inestimable, and irremediable to such a degree that it must raise the question of whether the show itself actually exists, let alone “goes on.” That is, he makes us see that spectacle is imaginary to such a degree that even when it is not present we, the audience, conjure it up. Bel’s work unfolds how spectacle “tonight” actually exists. The “must” of “the show must go on” finds a new psychosocial framework in the work of this conceptual artist whose ability to reduce the performative apparatus to its absolute minimum for the requirements of the maximal is wildly successful across the globe.

Disabled Theater, developed with and performed by Theater Hora, “Switzerland’s best-known professional theater company comprised of actors with learning and mental disabilities,” raises the stakes on Bel’s capacity to make theater out of non-theater by using non-dancers who, although professional actors, are also considered to be cognitively “disabled.” Bel is particularly adept at exposing the performer on stage and transmuting their inability to match up to expectations into an unexpected brand of theatricality. But, here, the issue of what disabled means, and what sort of power relations are at play when we are asked to look upon theater as “disabled” – performers whose very abilities are founded upon or limited by a presumed dis-ability – comes into immediate focus. How will they play their roles? In what sense are they being exposed or abused? How are we as audience to play our role? There is, from the start, an “us” and a “them.”

Not to be able is the sine qua non of Bel’s form of conceptual non-dance become entertainment. He has redefined technique as the inability to perform; he has redefined theatricality as voyeurism; he has deployed people on stage whose particular skill is to disenchant us about predefined skills, to show failed desire rather than achievement as expressive, to desire to be what they are not and thus to reveal desire to us as spectacle, to fall short of our expectations in order to unveil those expectations as a projection of the audience onto the theater skill itself: in a word, to kill virtuosity and dissect spectacle conceptually. Yet, with Disabled Theater, he may have crossed the line.

Disabled Theater begins when the translator takes her seat behind a small light-board on stage left. She is necessary because the actors only speak Swiss German, and she will translate what they say to us: but, she also transmits Bel’s ideas to us in the form of tasks the actors will accomplish, one by one. This is suggestive of A Chorus Line where all the performers are trying out for the show they are actually performing and the voice of the invisible director rules. In Disabled Theater, however, the try-out is one of structure: Bel trying out with the actors what they can do to make a piece. Each idea, each try, is a structural unit of the piece. This gives the piece its conceptual edge.

Ten empty seats arranged in a shallow semi-circle adorn the stage. “The first thing Jérôme asked the actors,” the translator informs us, “was to enter the stage one by one and to stay in front of the audience for one minute.” Each actor follows suit, emerging from the wings to stand in front of the chairs and confront the audience for his/her own interpretation of a minute before exiting. Some actors deliberately planted their feet on the stage and stood still for several minutes while others barely paused before nervously taking off. Some endured the examination in utter silence. Others stared amidst the coughs and throat clearings that often pervade quiet moments in the theater. Since Bel is only present through his translator one imagines he sits among us and hence we — the audience — come to identify with his authorial position: we sit in judgment. Added to the shamelessness of the spectatorial attitude – one of unabashed consumption – is by turns the resistance and acquiescence of the performer to our gaze conflated as it is with that of Bel. The mood is uneasy as we sense self-display, defiance, professional tolerance, shame, even perhaps victimization.

Next, “Jérôme asked the actors to state their name, age, and profession.” In the “Stay Late Discussion” following the Saturday (11/16) evening performance, Bel commented on the purposeful absurdity of this question – all ten actors replied “actor.” But, it was less about absurdity than about what kind of actors these people can be as Bel limits them to the structure of question-answer. What kinds of profession do those who are cognitively disabled exercise? Next, the actors were asked to state their handicaps. Actor Damian Bright replied he has Down’s syndrome, but elaborated, “that means I have one more chromosome than you in the audience,” drawing a genetic line between “us” and “them.” Others stated they are “slow,” have a “learning weakness,” or “did not speak until age four.” After each statement, the actor would sit on one of the chairs lining the back of the stage and look out at the audience as well as the other actors approaching the microphone in center stage. How is cognitive disability seen in relation to these words, and what is the appropriate reaction? Is the impetus to embrace, sympathize, accommodate, compensate, or ignore? These are the questions and concerns that surround much of the study on disability, in both performance and national legislation. The issue of “appropriate” reaction was most evident when actor Julia Hosserman stated, “I have Down’s syndrome and I am sorry.” Julia did not participate in the “Stay Late Discussion,” so for what or to whom exactly she was apologizing remains unclear, but in that moment, and when she slowly walked back to her seat, the question of how to watch and react to the rest of the piece hung in the air.

Next, the translator informed the audience, “Jérôme asked the actors to prepare a dance solo. Each actor chose his/her own music and made his/her own choreography. Jérôme chose seven of them.” The craft and construction of the solos choreographed by the actors reflected on dance history: Sara Hess manipulated fabric as she moved under the theatrical lights; Matthias Brucker cited breakdance elements; Remo Beuggert manipulated a chair, working the seat, the back, the four legs, and each corner in center stage as techno music pumped into the theater. When Julia was called to perform she presented a choreographed conversation with Pop music icon Michael Jackson. She played with and manipulated his ubiquitous choreography – the moonwalk, the pelvic thrust, the crotch grab – to the 1996 song “Don’t Care About Us.” After moonwalking across the stage, she threw her body around the space as she rocked her hips and whipped her hair wildly. Yet, she remained completely in control, returning to a still stance to once again cite and manipulate Jackson. She looked out into the audience and stiltedly undulated her hips as her feet slid away from her center. She simultaneously popped her right heel and then froze, as if a pulse of energy moved through her body to achieve momentary stillness. This subtle way of moving is arguably the most difficult of Jackson’s repertoire and Julia executes it succinctly.

At each performance it was unclear if the audience recognized her skill. The praise and cheers drew a fine line between appreciation and patronization. The audience howled, laughed, and almost cat-called for every “pelvic thrust,” applauding not for her artful effort, but in an attempt to make up for or erase Julia’s lingering apology. The uneasy mood evoked at the piece’s onset, with the discomforting gaze of the actors, was met with disingenuous over-compensation from the audience. In this sense, Disabled Theater became entertainment, and it is doubtless Bel’s profound grasp of the structure of entertainment that allows him to cross into this territory littered with uneasy questions. The negative stigma attached to disability is promulgated, not by the populations that would be classified as disabled, but by the social structures that see certain ways of being as dis-abled. The critical work of Disabled Theater happens in the seats, in the almost-condescending reactions of the audience. This is where the line, which Bel so elegantly established in his previous works, is crossed. The audience is always failing, un-able to react appropriately and meet the expectation to perceive Disabled Theater as more than an opportunity to express collective altruism. In the effort not to make a spectacle of cognitive disability, but to create perhaps a commentary on ability itself, an alternative spectacle is made.

After the seven solos were presented, “Jérôme asked the actors what they think about this piece.” Actor Gianni Blumer, reading from his notes, stated he was unhappy with the solos, and expressed how he wished he could be considered “one of the seven best.” Then the translator announced Bel decided to show all the solos and the final three were presented. In the “Stay Late Discussion” Bel said this decision was influenced by Gianni’s comments, but came to fruition through a longer process. The decision to choose only seven in the first place, Bel stated, was an attempt to perform his role as a choreographer – to decide what was “good” and “bad.” However, following the first few performances of the piece in Europe, he was met with a barrage of questions about the rejected solos and decided they needed to be seen.

Damian Bright
Damian Bright

Bel also explained the solos were the only way for him to “make contact” with the performers because “[He did] not know what they think.” Bel’s admission was intriguing. The instruction following the seven solos, as mentioned above, was for the actors to do just that – state what they think of the piece. Acquiescing to his request, they, of course, did: Sara Hess said it was “special,” Miranda Hossle said: “My job in this piece is to be myself and not someone else.” This, it seems to me, demonstrates a grasp of exactly what Bel is after and what makes his deconstruction of spectacle work as spectacle. In my recent viewing of The Show Must Go On in Zürich one of the performers was Damian Bright who also appears in Disabled Theater. He occupied a central position on stage and was by far the most expressive and compelling presence in the cast; in fact, his clarity and intensity made several other of the performers seem frankly inadequate. How is it that in the context of The Show Must Go On Bright stood out, yet in Disabled Theater he remained part of the lineup? I take from this a certain interchangeability in the demands of theatrical reality between the two works. As Miranda Hossle implied, to be oneself is a job. Yet, Damian Bright stated that his mother thought Disabled Theater was “kind of a freak show, but she liked it a lot.” The frame of the work is all-important. The mark “disabled” often leads to judgments of impaired intellect or an inability to think on one’s own, but, to hold, that mark must be made manifest in the structure of the work. The actors troubled this stereotype in both their words and movement but it was imposed nonetheless: structure is all. What makes us uneasy is the manner in which the analysis of spectacle at the conceptual level becomes entertaining in and of itself. The piece cannot and should not escape its title.

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