An Interview with Jérome Bel on audiences, communication, judgment, criticism, presentness, and, of course, theater.
This interview was conducted by Sandra Umathum and Benjamin Wihstutz in December 2013 and March 2014.
Jérôme, you recently came back from New York and Minneapolis. How was touring the United States with Disabled Theater?
Jérôme Bel: It was not that easy. The audience was problematic. It was very tense, not at all like in Europe.
What do you mean?
The piece was shown at the Performa biennial, so it was presented in a theater usually showing dance. I could feel a tension in the room right from the beginning. People would hold their breath during the first scene, when the actors are asked to stand in front of the audience for one minute. Or for example, when one of the performers with Down’s syndrome, Damian Bright, says: “I have one chromosome more than you guys in the audience”—people normally start laughing out loud. In fact they snort with laughter, but not in New York. Here, nobody laughed.
Why, do you think, were the audiences in America so serious?
I am not sure. I think people were embarrassed. It is certainly an American issue, although in Minneapolis it was a little more relaxed than in New York. But even there, everything was much more tense than in Europe. The reviews were also more critical; some accused me of abusing the performers. At least the spectators did not applaud as much as in Europe during the show.
In Berlin, people were clapping all the time. It seemed like every single line was applauded.
I think there is a certain dynamic involved. Once they have started applauding, they get into it, they don’t dare to stop because they want to respect every single one of the performers. Even when it is not great they cheer and clap, it’s ridiculous. In New York, there was only applause after the dance solos, which was nice. But applause is not only about appreciating the performance; people use it also to relax, for relief. When you clap, you say, I am still here. So I guess after the dance solos, the people in New York wanted to show that they were present. I really regret that I did not join the tour to Korea. It would have been interesting to see the audience reactions over there.
Would you like to continue working with disabled people?
At least that’s what everybody wants me to do. Recently, I had a restaging of The Show Must Go On in Zurich, in which two of HORA’s actors took part. At first I asked Damian Bright to join the show. I love Damian, he is one of the most articulate, and so I told my assistant and the producer to take him. I don’t know exactly why they also took Remo, but it was no problem at all. When I went to Zurich to see the show—usually I don’t go to see the performances—it was marvelous. A few weeks later, when we toured in Paris, I also wanted to include the two of them. But the question was, how can they travel? My company is not like Theater HORA, with four people and a psychologist on tour, so I asked Simone, the translator, if she could join the cast in Paris as an assistant of Damian and Remo, which she did. In Paris many people came, who had already seen the piece before, people who are fans of this show. And they were so moved and stimulated. It is really opening up new possibilities, because The Show Must Go On is obviously so much about embracing a maximum variety of people. With Remo and Damian on stage, you get a whole new perspective. In the beginning you might recognize that Damian has a disability, but you probably forget it during the show—just until the Macarena scene. This scene, which is a group scene, unintentionally turns into a solo for Damian, because he is always late with his moves. Suddenly, you just see him, because his movements are not synchronized. Only then it comes back to your mind that he has a disability. And I love the fluidity, in a way, of the disability: sometimes it disappears, sometimes it is obvious, depending on the situation.
There also seems to be a big difference for the actors with respect to being on or off stage. Most of them appear to be quite self-confident while performing, whereas they act more insecure in everyday conversations with people they don’t know, like for example at after- show parties.
For me this was very tricky in the beginning. I first had to find a way to communicate with them. I couldn’t have done anything else. I couldn’t have said, we don’t translate what they are saying or we do the show without anybody presenting the piece. For me it was clear that the translation on stage is symbolizing a problem, that is the difficulty I have in communicating with them. What I mean is not the language barrier, it is something else that is hidden under the German, Swiss-German and French, something that can only be symbolized by translation: the communication—it’s all about that.
So you chose the figure of the translator to put this communication problem on stage?
Yes, and then I had to choose the right person. I had very specific criteria: she had to be a dancer, she had to live in Zurich, and she had to speak French, German, English and Swiss-German.
Why did it have to be a dancer?
Because I knew she would be playing my part. A theater director or an actor would have been very different. As a dancer, she would be an expert in timing, and the question of timing in dance, of timing in my work is very important. I was especially interested in the time of waiting, the time of nothingness, the time it takes to pull back the cable. For things like these, I needed a dancer.
How did you deal with the communication problem during the rehearsals, especially in the reflection scene, when the performers are asked what they think about this piece? It must have been difficult to talk with them about the piece.
This scene was really created out of despair. It actually did not become part of the show until after Disabled Theater first premiered in Berne. Most of what you see in the piece was made in five days. But unfortunately, I still had four more weeks for rehearsals. So what I tried in the following three weeks was to turn the piece around. Instead of the performers choosing their own music and working on their own choreography, I made them listen to my taste of music and watch dance pieces that I like. My goal in this production was not to pull them anywhere, but it was still difficult for me to accept not doing anything. I think my problem was a systematic one; it is all about habitus, as Bourdieu would call it. I just could not get rid of the thought that I had to produce something; after all this was what I was being paid for. So they were watching Pina Bausch and Trisha Brown performances on my computer, and they were listening to contemporary classical music or to Gustav Mahler’s “O Mensch! Gib acht!”
This sounds fantastic.
It was fantastic. Peter fell asleep. The assistant and the dramaturge loved it, too, but the problem was that they were really bored. The more I was trying, the less they could stand it. And suddenly I felt that I was alienating them just the way they are alienated in everyday life when people make them do things they don’t want to do. I just had to accept that my job was to stand back, not to bring them anywhere else but back to what they are, to the way that is not accepted by society. I remember clearly that one night in Zurich, I told myself, OK, that’s it, that is your job, Jérôme, not to work. But it took me three weeks to come to that point, three weeks of trying to make them do something elaborate, something sophisticated, something conceptual, something beautiful.
So in a way you had to redefine your own role, too.
In many ways, Disabled Theater looks as though it were based on improvisation, which is not the case. In fact, every performance sticks to the same lines and to the same choreographies. Did you ask the actors to reproduce?
Yes, for dramaturgical reasons. I needed to be safe. I filmed them several times during the rehearsals and then I had to choose. When, for example, Matthias Grandjean said the piece was direct, it was clear that I wanted to keep this line because it was most interesting for the piece. But the problem is that they never wanted to repeat. They always wanted to do something new. And, in fact, not everything is repeated: the dramaturgical order of the first scene, for example, is not set. They can come in whatever order they choose, it’s not decided. Also in the following scene, when they are asked to say their name and profession, the order is random and they can take a seat where they want. Just from the beginning of the third scene on, the translator calls them up by name, which means that the order is set.
How about the timing, is it difficult to repeat? Peter for example seems to tell his endless stories without a sense of timing, and just when you come to the point where the audience can hardly stand it anymore, he walks off.
Yes, Peter is amazing, he always tells a different story. The truth is that he does have a sense of timing, which is why Simone usually does not stop him and he rarely takes more than five minutes. It seems strange, because you can clearly see that he is lost during the scene but then he suddenly stops and walks off even before Simone gets to say anything. So he has a certain feeling of time, which I don t understand at all.
There is this one scene during the show, a literally decisive moment in the piece, when, after Gianni’s complaint that only seven performers have been chosen to present their solo, it is decided that the other four, supposedly worse performers, including Gianni may also present their dance. Is this really a transparent reproduction of an incident during the rehearsals, as the translator claims, or are you actually playing a dramaturgical trick on the audience?
It is the truth. I had real doubts if I should put the eleven solos on stage or only seven, because I knew that the piece was going to be too long with all of the solos, especially since they come with such bad music. But on the other hand, I did not really want to reject anyone. It was unbearable, although they are professional performers and rejection should be part of their work—yes, to reject them would actually mean to treat them professionally. In the first shows in Berne and Brussels, we only did the seven solos and the “Jérôme asked the performers what they think about this piece” scene. In Berne, we added a different ending, which was beautiful in the studio but unfortunately didn’t work in the show. Instead of presenting the other four solos and of bowing to the audience, the performers were simply asked to stay as long on stage as they wanted to and leave the stage individually. It was the best scene ever but it did not work because each time someone got up from their chair, the audience would start to clap. The performers in turn started to react to the applause by acting funny; it became a competition, which made it impossible for me to keep that ending. Then, at the dOCUMENTA (13), I decided to present the piece with only seven solos, the “what do you think about this piece” scene and the bow. However, I received all these reproachful and aggressive comments like, “Why isn’t Miranda dancing?” Then Xavier Le Roy, who had seen three shows within two days, told me: “The piece is not accomplished if you don’t see them all dance. It doesn’t matter whether they are good or bad, the piece is about their singularity.” So eventually, I decided to show all of them. And now some of the formerly excluded, Matthias Brückner, for example, are fantastic.
What were the criteria of your judgment? Why did you find some of the solos more interesting or better than others?
The criteria are super subjective, stupidly subjective—except maybe for Gianni who really isn’t a good dancer. The problem is that he is trying something new all the time. Also, he wants to change his music every time. But the main reason why I did show all of them in the end is that the production is about communication, and their way to communicate in this piece is dance. I realized that dance was more than language. Through dance, I could see their culture; I could see their relation to the world—one being a super-symmetric representation of the body, the other being more chaotic. To me, their dance is very eloquent.
Your decision to present the seven solos first, however, and the latter four only after Gianni’s complaint, obviously does something to the audience. It compels the spectators to compare, to question the criteria of aesthetic judgment, to reflect upon it.
Do you want the audience to compare?
Yes, and that is why I cannot bring the eleven right away. It was funny: Gianni actually had never complained to me, I didn’t realize that he or someone else of the group might have a problem with the selection of only seven solos. When I asked them during the rehearsals how they were doing they always said that everything was fine. It was just until we first tried out this scene that Gianni all of a sudden came up with this comment. He used the perfect moment to, in a way publicly, say that he wanted to take part in the dance scenes. The problem is that I usually don’t get to know what bothers them, because they have such trouble explaining things. For example, when you ask Julia if she knows the lyrics of Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us,” she says, no. I have been accused by many people and the press of manipulating Julia. They think I am cheating. They think I gave her the song because of the lyrics, which I didn’t.
Would it have been so bad if you had actually given her this song?
It would have been a whole different piece. When we first tried it out in Zurich, people did not understand that the performers chose their own music, which is why we had to include the assistant’s line that the performers created the solos and picked the songs by themselves. People stuck to the idea that I was working like a traditional choreographer, like “Julia, go like this, and then you go like that …”
How did you make their choreography repeatable?
The dance is not repeated. They repeat, they improvise, they want to change the music, I say yes or I say no. In New York, for example, Matthias Brückner was in love with Tiziana and he wanted to show me a new solo. So he picked Tiziana’s music.
He picked the same song?
Of course. As you remember, in his song he is dancing very nervously and then it was the opposite: he was dancing like a ballerina, very softly, to this slow Italian pop song. I loved it. I wanted to put it on the show because I liked the idea that people would understand that it was his way to show his love to Tiziana. But in the end, Matthias did not want to do it, not because he did not want to dance like a ballerina but because Tiziana was against it.
We were speaking about judgment and about Julia’s performance. What do you think about the award Julia won, being honored as the best up-and-coming actress at the Berlin Theatertreffen?
The whole thing was a little bit like what I’m doing, you could say, it’s positive discrimination. It’s difficult to tell whether she is a good actress, but she is so creative all the time. I know that every night something will happen with her. She makes me think of an actor like Alexander Scheer. Performers like that bring everything to the theater, they cannot stop playing, they cannot stop bringing meaning to the stage.
But then again, does awarding the prize to only one of the actors not contradict the concept of your piece?
Yes, of course. You are right. That’s why we don’t mention the award on the programs.
But do you think she is better than others? And what would this mean in the context of Disabled Theater?
I don’t think she is better, she has just found the right place in society: she belongs to the stage.
Did you hear about the project the performance group Monster Truck is doing? They are working with disabled actors from Theater Thikwa, but they ask them to direct.
I think that’s the right thing to do. If I did another piece with them, I would like to give them the tools to do it. There is certainly a lot of potential. I have recently been thinking about giving the production to a new cast. When Rodrigo Garcia asked me to bring the piece to his new theater in Southern France I told him that I have heard of this company in Montpellier with disabled actors and that I would like to try to restage Disabled Theater with them. It would be good to see if it is a play that anybody can use. Obviously with just six questions, it is easy to stage. Of course I would have to see if it works with another cast but if it does, it would become a play written by Jérôme Bel.
How do you cope with the criticism you often receive, especially from people who have been working with disabled actors for a very long time—people who claim that the actors could actually do much better, who criticize you for not really working with them?
In a way I can understand them. But I’m not interested in doing better, my theater has always to do with what you are, and failure and impossibilities are my themes. My goal is not to push the performers to improve. People who criticize me for that have a different viewpoint, which is more educative. They are into normalization, into being more productive. The directors of these companies may be artists, but at the same time they are social workers. Still, I feel so bad sometimes.
Well, sometimes I have these doubts because they are specialists. It is due to these theater directors that people with disabilities perform, and they have been working with them for 20 or 30 years by now. Probably they have no recognition simply because they are working with disabled people. Sometimes I feel like maybe I was wrong.
Would you think that way if it were a piece with a normal cast, an ensemble without people with disabilities?
Well, in a way the criticism of The Show Must Go On was the same. I was accused of doing nothing. People were asking, Why should I pay for that? And it was even worse when I staged the piece with the cast of the Lyon Opera Ballet. I mean, these dancers can do anything, they dance Forsythe, they dance classical ballet, and then there was my piece. This was a huge provocation. I liked it very much, but the perspective is always the same: you have to be better than the audience; it has to be something extraordinary. Of course I could do it differently, but my aim or my obsession—I don’t know how to call it—is really against dance, against this tradition of improving your movement and your technique. I think this is rooted in me. “The good actor, the good dancer, you have to become better”—it is just unbearable for me. And when people now say about Disabled Theater, they can do much better, I have to say I have never been interested in this. I am interested in what you are with your vulnerabilities or incapacities and that is probably why I did this piece and why Marcel Bugiel invited me to work with Theater HORA.
But part of the critique is not only that they could do better, but also that you are not really working.
Which is true. I am very lazy. I really do work less with performers than others. A normal dance production takes three months of rehearsals, whereas Jérôme Bel has been done in two weeks, Disabled Theater in five weeks, and Pichet Klunchun and Myself in four days. That’s why I have chosen the conceptual approach. It comes from Duchamp. I don’t want to repeat and improve. The idea is more important than the making, which was his strategy. The idea is more important than the craft. They say the disabled actors could do better than this. Yes, but what I have seen from these companies did not impress me. They are just reproducing the normal theater that I don’t like. I actually don’t give a shit about it.
Isn’t that what the title of the piece is about: disabling the theater?
Absolutely. This has been my project from the very beginning: how to take power away from theater until the point where it resists. And in fact the big success of Disabled Theater can be explained by the fact that on stage these performers are not disabled at all. Theatrically speaking, they are super-strong. On stage their presence is phenomenal. Thus, Disabled Theater is in fact a very abled theater, because the strength of theater is to be in the present, to perform. Not to play, not to act. This is the reason why I connected with these actors. I could see that for example Julia is performing something different every night. She is so much in the present.
What exactly do you mean by “being in the present”?
When they enter the stage they look where they go. A professional actor or dancer will rehearse and then just use his memory to go to the place where he is supposed to go. He won’t take note of what is happening around him, he only cares about what we have decided to do. But if something changes he wouldn’t use it, he wouldn’t look at it. With the actors from Theater HORA, this is not the case. They walk on stage and if there is a different shadow because of a projector or something else, they look at it. If there were a technician backstage, they would look at him, too. A professional dancer would never do that, because he would try to stay focused on what the director wants him to do. But being in the present is the best thing that can happen to theater. Theoretically, I have known this for more than 15 years, ever since we started to discuss what we call performativity. Usually, in theater, the actors try to reproduce the play without any change. But a performance can never be reproduced exactly; things change all the time. People are laughing, people are coughing, and you have to take this into account. There is no fourth wall.
This almost sounds as if you did not want the actors to reproduce but to improvise, which is certainly not true. You are still the one who is making the choices and you want the actors to reproduce.
Of course, I don’t let them do whatever they want to, this cannot be the goal. Actually, I was a control freak for years just until this production, where I couldn’t control the actors anymore. I had to surrender. If they don’t remember what they are supposed to do on stage, you see them trying to remember, which, for me, is beautiful. That is what I call transparency. They are not hiding their failures, they are not hiding that something is different to a certain extent.
Coming from Disabled Theater, coming from this experience, what would be the next step of pushing theater to its limits?
My goal is to bring professionals to the same relation to time and space. I want to bring them to this level of liveness. I have to change everything. I would like to find a way to let super-dancers dance again in a way they are not afraid of, unrestrictedly. I am not interested in improvisation; I am interested in freedom on stage, in emancipation from the power of theatrical discourse, from the theatrical traditions, from narcissism. Disabled Theater works because the actors are not narcissistic.
But they do want to be appreciated by the audience. They enjoy the applause, don’t they?
Certainly. In fact, after the first show in Berne I nearly cancelled everything. They were applauding each other and taking bows all the time. This was the worst performance I have ever done. But I think the question of narcissism is a good point. We all, especially people who perform on stage, are so much about being loved and admired. During the solos the actors of Disabled Theater may be a bit like that, but they don’t have the same neurosis as we. And this is precisely what I am working on: losing this seduction of being on stage. The worst I can imagine in theater is when it looks as though the actors were selling themselves. That’s why I don’t like commercial theater. In Disabled Theater, they have very little to sell. People don’t even want to see them in society, which is why they are perfectly suited to question our society’s ideology. They are a nightmare for our ideology, a counterpoint of everything the mass media are producing.
Although it is obvious that you are trying to deconstruct the theatrical dispositif, it is striking that you stick to a strict division between performers and spectators, between stage and auditorium. Is there a reason why you never involve the spectators in your performances?
I could never do that, because I want my theater to be art.
If you involve the spectator, it is no longer art?
I hate participatory theater. I think it’s not relevant, and as a spectator I don’t like people to physically interact with me. To be part of something is too common. In social life, you are constantly asked to express yourself; you have to be sympathetic all the time. But art has to maintain a difference. I believe that the power of art lies is in this situation, a listener or a voyeur is separated from a representation, from the action. That’s the only way to enable an experience different from everyday life: an emotional and thoughtful experience, a lonely one, a non-social one. I am so fascinated by this interior dialogue we all produce when faced with an art work—this silent dialogue between you and what you see, isolated by the darkness of the auditorium. That’s why I cannot imagine one day asking the spectators to participate. This wouldn’t be art anymore … and this would be so cruel.
is Professor for Theater/Performance Studies and Dramaturgy at the “Ernst Busch” Academy of Dramatic Art (department for theatre directing). Main research areas: relations between theater und the visual arts since the 1950s, theory und praxis of contemporary theatre and performance art, politic dimensions of aesthetics, contemporary forms of dramaturgy.
holds a PhD from Freie Universität Berlin, where he teaches theatre studies. His research focuses on politics and aesthetics in contemporary performance as well as in the German theatre around 1800.
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?