This excellent post is written by one of my friends Emily Barasch. This is the first time I experiment with guest-blogging, and with my role as an editor because after I was first approached by Emily, it felt important to expand my singular perspective on this blog as Cult Plastic gains momentum. If you are interested in writing for Cult Plastic, please contact me via WordPress!
I recently watched a video of Jérôme Bel’s work, Jérôme Bel, and was reminded of this pivotal time in choreography in the nineties. At the center of this work lies the question: What constitutes a dance performance? What continues a performance? What constitutes dance? How does a dance performance differ from a performance? In an interview with Christophe Wavelet discussing this work, Jérôme Bel explains, at its simplest distillation, a dance performance requires living bodies, music, and light.
The evening length work, Jérôme Bel, which premiered in 1994 at the Ménagerie de Verre in Paris served as an embodiment of Bel attempting to answer his questions. What follows in the piece, from the performers, is the interrogation and investigation into breaking down the hierarchical, colonialist nature of historical methods of choreography, within this loose framework of a “dance performance”. He is choreographing using the anti-form. In darkness, illuminated only by one lightbulb, three performers enter the stage naked. They stare monotonously at the audience, almost tauntingly, as if to say “is this what you had in mind when you came to see us dance?” The piece continues with some pretty radical moments: at one point the male performer spreads out his pubic hair into a five pronged star shape while staring at the audience, and then urinates on stage. And yet, this is a dance performance, and Bel is known as a choreographer.
While these sorts of durational and corporeal performances may read as lazy, they are actually a part of a critical and necessary discourse in breaking down the hegemony of modern dance choreography. Although the bodies may be moving in a slow, easeful, monotonous way, as often seen in the “post-modern” /“post-Judson” aesthetic, but every second of the work is intentional and necessary in challenging the capitalistic structure of choreography. The essence of this performance by Jérôme Bel is the opening of a new discourse for the potentiality of this interrogation [interrogating the performance and performing the interrogation], while gaining legitimacy for this kind of work as valid and urgent. He is questioning the commodification and capitalistic exchange and relationship between audience and performer.
In the historical European structure of a dance performance, the audience pays money to buy their experience and entertainment. The choreographers and performers then become at the mercy of this money, provided by both the audience goers and funders. Within this exchange, there lies an expectation. To be dazzled at the virtuosity of what they have paid for. To this, Bel says fuck you. He doesn’t owe the audience anything. If Eurocentricity as an aesthetic, is a child of colonialism, it must be said, that these dancers as white Europeans are placing themselves at the center of the decolonizing work. They are both the colonizer and the decolonizer. They are using their position as white Europeans to challenge the discourse of traditionally appreciated European aesthetics. Being white, both Bel and his dancers, have the ability and freedom to do this because of their positions within society. In this, the colonizer [Bel and his Performers] awaken the thing being used to colonize [dance].
Jérôme Bel’s piece, Jérôme Bel, is posing the question, What is a dancer? What makes a dancer? Is it just a human body, or do you have to have something else that makes a dancer? By stripping the performance of superfluities such as bright lights and ornate costumes, Bel’s work is roots the audience in reality. Using the body to humanize the research, de-colonize the dancer, and deconstructing the body. He uses the body to relocate and contextualize its history [of a white European body] and audience’s perceptions. The body is the thing being looked at, but the body is also the thing being used to look at itself. Bel examines the body as both subject, vehicle, and synthesizer.
He speaks in the interview about rendering things mundane in an effort to de-hierarchize the experience of making, performing, and watching work. Doing a ballet variation is not more valid than a body sitting in a chair on stage—they are of equal value and importance. Bel’s work speaks to this, and allows dance viewers and spectators to begin breaking down the oppressive nature of making and viewing work. His work reveals how deeply we have been socialized and colonized to experience and create performances. He wants to de-historicize, de-colonize, and de-contextualize (by providing hyper contextualization). He strips down the dancers both of clothes and context to exacerbate the audience’s connotations of the performers existence and experiences through their gender. By not adding any additional costumes, lights, or sets, the audience is left with nothing but a naked body and lightbulb to place their own expectations of the humanity of the bodies being presented. What is identity? Who are you when aspects of your identity are taken away or exaggerated?
In Andre Lepeki’s book, Exhausting Dance, he talks a lot about the capitalistic and colonialist structure of choreography:
One cannot neglect the effect of hegemonic forces that constantly try to dominate and prevent the creation of subjectivities by binding individuals into reproductive mechanisms of subjection, abjection, and domination… Choreography demands a yielding to commanding voices of masters [living and dead], it demands submitting body and desire to disciplining regimes [anatomical, dietary, gender, racial] all for the perfect fulfillment of a transcendental and preordained set of steps, postures, and gestures that nevertheless must appear “spontaneous”.
Jérôme Bel is challenging this idea in real live performance, through the vehicle of the body as the tool. For me, this is radical and revolutionary. This framework of challenging and interrogating this problematic structure of choreography, which Lepeki points out, is how I want to approach my own work. Lepeki also explains that Bel is:
challenging historical notions of choreography— moving away from identity politics being self contained—and using other bodies as subjects to expand modes of identifying and representing…Bel’s insistence in uncovering how choreography specifically participates in, an is accomplice of, representation’s ‘submission of subjectivity’ under modern structures of power.
In this work there is no delineation between the sacred and the profane. It all exists in our bodies and is all valid. Something reading as sacred or profane is imposed onto our bodies by external forces. We have been constructed to be uncomfortable by the image of two naked bodies on stage. This is seen as profane, and unsettling, while watching a Paul Taylor (or even Bat Sheva to be more contemporary) piece is seen as exciting and impressive for its physicality and entertainment value.
In my last work, I sat on stage for 10 minutes staring at my doll sitting on a chair across from me. I sat there unmoving, and then I continued to sit while I played an interview with Marina Abromovic discussing what performance art is. I then asked if I could have a volunteer from the audience come up, and I had him read the introduction of the book DANCE by Andre Lepeki. I then had him go sit down and then told the audience, “okay, now I am going to dance for you, because that is what you came here to watch me do”. What I did then was put on pop music and invite the audience up to dance with me and we had a wonderful cathartic dance party for the remainder of my “piece”. This was a very casual and small study for me, and the few audience members were viscerally annoyed at having to watch me sit there for so long, having expected a “dance performance”. However, this small performance was extremely important for me in my own research. It was the first time I did not engage in historical Eurocentric aesthetics and methods of choreographing and performing. In my opinion, this is where the work is in the field of performance and dance studies, and as a choreographer I hope to continue unpacking my work through this lens.