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Review, 4-7: Scorning Me Softly with His Song
Bel's Ball-Less Ball
Copyright 2005 Chris Dohse
NEW YORK -- I received
an advance videotape of Jerome Bel's "The Show Must Go On" to use
in writing a preview for New York Press. The morning of my deadline
I got up at 5 AM to watch the tape. Harrumphing and fast-forwarding
through most of the first half, I stopped when I saw the irritating
pose from the prow of the ship in "Titanic" recreated. Really, I
thought, this is too much.
Here's some selected
text from my preview: (In the spirit of Bel's appropriation pastiche,
I'm going to quote myself, because let's face it: Here in the twilight
of ideas everything has already been said and I just rearrange the
same words over and over like so many leftover vegetables or parrot
somebody else's disaffections.)
"Riffing his movement
invention off disposable street hauteur the way Pop artists ate
"A lure of unfulfilled
voyeurism creates frisson after one guy pulls his pants down and
flops his balls around...."
"This would create a
fabulous fuck-you ambience in a cabaret or nightclub. Framing it
as concert dance is Bel's sassy contribution to the post-post-what-is-it-anymore-anyway?
"It's either a pompous
string of unkind jokes or it's one of the more brilliant vultures
feeding off the carcass of modernism, but it's sure to inflect the
post-ironic generation for years to come, so we'd better get used
To briefly describe
the theatrical conceit of this "spectacle" (seen March 24 at Dance
Theater Workshop): Bel composes nearly static tableaux vivant with
a large cast of trained and untrained performers while a sound engineer
in the front row of seats plays a string of pop songs. The sound
guy takes his time changing the CDs for each song; the cast stands
watching him in silence as he does this. The physical activity,
or lack thereof, that happens mimics the lyrics of the songs in
a daring but sophomoric way. So for instance, the stage lights fade
up to "Let the Sun Shine In" (Hair); the house lights fade up, tinted
red, to "La Vie en Rose" (Edith Piaf) while the stage sits empty
and in darkness.
I think I get this.
Bel is upending the suspension of disbelief assumed in theatrical
dance and smearing the audience in the face with their complacency.
In addition to being theoretically arcane and cool it's also kooky
and fun and completely satisfying. But it stinks on video.
During "Don't Stand
So Close to Me" (the Police) and "I Want Your Sex" (George Michael),
the entire cast crowds the front edge of the stage like a Tussaud
chorus line dressed in ill-fitting dollar-bin fashions. The house
lights are up at this point and they regard us, some passively,
some intently, scanning the audience row by row. Shrugging and somewhat
bored and feeling invited to become part of the proceedings, my
friend (who asks to be called Keiner) and I pick up a conversation
we'd been having over dinner. He (rather loudly) begins to complain
about the show. He says, among other things, "I feel like he's flogging
the audience. Lent is definitely over after this; it's like some
kind of penance."
I'll let Keiner describe
what happens next:
The woman behind me
says, "Come on guys. You're really distracting."
Me: "What? They're playing pop music. You can't concentrate on that?"
Her: "You're disrupting the performance."
Then her friend: "If you don't like it you should leave."
Me: "If you don't like it you should leave!"
Then her friend, leaning over and staring at me intensely: "I don't
I am so pleased! Having
read about the frequently violent response to Bel in Europe, I was
rather hoping some sort of brawl would break out, but I didn't think
I'd be in the middle of it.
Without much hope, I
unpack the images, wondering about the why of Bel's what. And comparing
the presence of the dancers to my criteria of what interests me
in any good dancing: who they're being within the context of what
they're doing. Here the dancers do little, relying entirely on personae,
yet they remain passive objects within Bel's construction, flotsam.
They create vivid characters that linger with me into the next day.
Yet there is a smug, sneering quality to Bel's gesture.
So then my question
becomes: Why is he so passionate about this sort of pedestrian ephemera?
The buzz around him would have it seem that he sees himself as some
kind of heretic. Yet to me it seems canonical and tame to simply
invert canonical conventions. One could argue that inverting orthodoxy
reifies the status quo.
My guess is that his
impulse, like just about anybody else's, is really to imprint his
ego on posterity. And his ego is a bully. I've seen this elsewhere
-- Xavier Le Roy comes to mind -- and I see camps being erected
around this work, the yeahs and the nays, the hairstyles and the
lifestyles. And this is as it's always been in the avant-garde.
So much for heresy.
Something about the
work's disposable quality shuts me out. The bodies piled like garbage
that accompany "Killing Me Softly" (Roberta Flack) to conclude the
program especially. This kind of image, Nuremberg corpses like so
many cigarette butts, doesn't amuse.
But I recognize the
scorn. To paraphrase drag diva Jackie Beat, gay men have a history
of showing their affection through sarcasm and bitchiness.
"The Show Must Go On"
makes a moue, ridiculous and titillating, disdainful and camp. Something
bums me out about it. There's something nihilistic here, something
dark. And it's also a rollicking good time. Especially if you argue
with your neighbors.
Oh, and PS. The guy
with the balls apparently had a more pressing engagement, so no
balls, no frisson, alas. And the "Titanic" pose filled my eyes with
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