Come Together Discomfort and Longing in Jérôme Bel's »Disabled Theater«
PDF, 20 pages
This essay analyzes Jérôme Bel and Theater HORA’s Disabled Theater through a critical lens of disability by closely reading several of its Berlin and New York performances, drawing upon interviews with audience members and actors, and comparing the production with Bel’s earlier work, The Show Must Go On. Although Disabled Theater has been celebrated for aesthetic innovation and a bold, so-called politically incorrect embrace of disability, I argue that its aesthetic and affective work is coupled with and dependent upon a reductive approach to disability. The production achieves its force and audience interest by tacitly targeting the uncomfortable feelings many of us have about disability and then offering a fallacious sense of emancipation from these disabling perceptions and emotions. There is, however, an exception to this dynamic and outcome. Refusing to abide by the production’s otherwise normate perspective and expectations, Peter Keller’s individual performances offer an example of disability’s transgressive power and beauty onstage.
Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater, a dance piece featuring eleven actors with cognitive disabilities from Zurich's Theater HORA, has polarized audiences worldwide. Some have celebrated the performance as an outstanding exploration of presence and representation; others have criticized it as a contemporary freak show. This impassioned reception provokes important questions about the role of people with cognitive disabilities within theater and dance—and within society writ large. Using Disabled Theater as the basis for a broad, interdisciplinary discussion of performance and disability, this volume explores the intersections of politics and aesthetics, inclusion and exclusion, and identity and empowerment. Can the stage serve as a place of emancipation for people with disabilities? To what extent are performers with disabilities able to challenge and subvert the rules of society? What would a performance look like without an ideology of ability?