Jerome Bel: The Show Must Go On

the water does not intend to reflect the moon
nor does the moon intend to be reflected in the water:
how calm and serene rest Hirosawa's waters!


18.x.2007. The Show Must Go On
Concept and direction: Jérôme Bel. DJ and Technical director: Gilles Gentner. MIAF. Playhouse at the Arts Centre. 16-18 October. Co-produced by Théâtre de la Ville, Paris; Gasthuis, Amsterdam; Centre choréographique national Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon; Arteleku Gipuzkoako Foru Aldundia, Donostia, San Sebastián; and R.B., Paris.

In 2006, my Croatian friend Petar insisted that I be his delegate at MIAF '06 and witness Jérôme Bel. He was adamant. I had to see him. Unqualified, unmodified by adjectives, this Jérôme Bel. Except, of course, that he was crazy, but madness is a constant in art. So I went. And to this day I cannot define what it was that I saw. I walked out with a strong feeling that everything was beautiful and life worth living. But why?

Recently, I saw Thom Pain, a play meant to break conventions, tear through the form, show us raw feeling, but also a play endlessly plagued by acting. I witnessed it as spontaneity enacted, performed, and unconvincing, a quirky but superficial recombination of formal clichés; the paradox exploded in full force when the actor interrupted the final applause to ask for donations, explained the history, operation and purpose of the fund in question, and gave an example of an acting colleague struggling through illness. This sudden moment of real life on stage had me in tears before I realised what was happening. It was as if the emotions of the play, behind the play, finally found a suitable release point.

May I compare it to Kim Ki-duk and his elaborate constructions of situations, situations improbable, unrealistic? In Kim Ki-duk's world, grandiose combinations of people, places, events, emotions, serve to illustrate comparatively small intellectual points (intellect being but a fragment of human reality). The problem is that so much of life, of humanity, of existence, is fundamentally indescribable, unshowable, unrepresentable, comes out spontaneously when nobody is looking, nobody is acting, nobody is writing or directing. The truth of art – for myself, of course – is born in the moment the artist forgets the artist, the work and the purpose, and expresses some of that light of life. I'm sure there is more than an element of fairly simple Euro aesthetics in this, but think Zen: He who deliberates and moves his brush intent on making a picture, misses to a still greater extent the art of painting. Draw bamboos for ten years, become a bamboo, then forget all about bamboos when you are drawing. In possession of an infallible technique, the individual places himself at the mercy of inspiration.

In The Diary Project, Renata Cuocolo pointed out: What has always fascinated me is the way in which people can stay at the window or on the veranda all day long, looking outside not getting bored, but if they go to the movies or to the theatre they immediately complain about feeling bored. Renata Cuocolo, herself an artist.

The Show Must Go On, this year's gift to us (and might there be more?), explores this front line between the real and the artificial image, and real and artificial experience, and creates something very special in the process. Most of the art, contemporary art, that does work on this distinction, I find displeasing, self-conscious, banal, and not bringing anything new into the picture, just the insistent, insecure clamor of why do you look at me? am i special? am i that special? just how much? i'm not! or am i?. Like the reaction of one confronted with someone else's love. Not Bel, though. For whatever reason, he succeeds. I find it hard to paint a picture of why?, therefore!, by these means!, this is his secret! But it works for me, for the person sitting next to me, for that guy behind me giving the standing ovation at the end, for the excited 12-year-old. Perhaps it's the sweetness. I myself am not a fan of brutalism in arts, of that in-your-face violence towards the spectator. Why not try to reach the television-viewer instead, the computer-game player, the sports audience, or at least those who go to musicals? Theatre bunch, themselves attending theatre very rarely for pure spectacle, are already likely to be engaged in arts production, asking themselves the same question. And that is, after all, why a theatre performance would have any more significance than watching the street.

So in a sense, The Show Must Go On makes us watch like we would watch the street. He pokes the theatre form just enough to get us there, and yet not forget to be engaged emotionally and intellectually, to give it the importance we rarely give to street-watching. He does that by doing all kinds of unexpected, un-theatrical things to the stage, performers and the audience, but there is never brutality to it. He plays pop songs. Performers assemble on the stage only to put their hands in their pockets and look at us, the audience. They lights go off. The performers will leave the stage, then come back. Dancers without ballet training will perform ballet clichés. Performers without singing talent sing. People will hug, and dance a sentiš under muted red lights. At one point, even the audience is given a chance to perform, with the lights on us, and the entire performing ensemble looking attentively. (To Matt's dismay, only some use the opportunity to dance a dance back. He has since suggested attending another performance only to right this wrong.) It's all unexpected, it's all vaguely puzzling, but there is the same sense of purpose that exists on the street at any given hour (even 5am). It's some sort of life on stage, but not as a representation of some off-stage life, it's performers living on stage, being what they are and doing what they do in the most honest way. The sound technician comes on stage to dance alone on Only You, and after a minute, having had an idea, he jumps off the stage to his technician desk, turns the volume up and the lights down, and returns. After an entire songful of random actions, jumps, clenches, bangs, finishes, the dancers not only stop performing, they take a minute to be tired. They take their jumpers off. Go off-stage and come back with bottles of water. They breathe heavily. They wait for the next number. There is no affectation to it, but no purposeless banality either. It's Bel saying, these are performers, you are audience, i direct: let's see the possibilities of the situation.

In fact, what's most compelling about the performance is its ability to glean most spontaneous audience reactions. In a less benevolent world, this would include a great number of patrons leaving, but this night, instead, there are people rocking on their chairs in beat with the pop songs; patchy singing along; laughter on all sides, and it's the most beautiful thing, bursts of laughter from a person or two, contagiously spreading over the auditorium and dying quickly, then again; there is a final applause that in itself could be a staged scene, with standing ovations on one side, people leaving on the other, and groups of happy patrons simply sitting in their seats, enjoying what's certainly not the end of the show. Until everyone has left, it's not over.

There is no incitement to grand collective audience participation, and none is likely to happen in a city like this. It's not a show of universal love&collective harmony. There are witty moments, and happy moments, and moments of individual responsibility. But there is never despair, never any suggestion we might be better off observing the street outside. Afterwards, there is palpable joy in the air. Joy. There doesn't seem to be in Bel's work any intention to teach us, and nor does the audience seem to intend to learn secrets about life. But in the end, how calm and serene rest Hirosawa's waters.

by Jana Perkovic

Tagged , , ,