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Flash Flashback, 4-16: Scorning me softly with his song
Bel's ball-less ball

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2005, 2009 Chris Dohse

(To celebrate more than a decade as the leading source of reviews of performances from all over the world, The Dance Insider is revisiting its Archive. This Flash Review originally appeared on April 7, 2005.)

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 commercial design...."

"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? clique...."

"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 it."

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 like you!"

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 tears.

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