The performers seemed genuinely unselfconscious. They lolled about when not performing, scratched themselves, lay across each others’ laps, laughed, were sometimes inattentive or preoccupied—behaviors that one is accustomed to seeing in a more formal setting such as naturalistic drama and then only as simulations. They seemed unafraid to express an unlimited gamut of responses, from boredom to unrestrained enthusiasm for each other’s dance improvisations.
It wasn’t that they were unaware of their disability. At the outset, Bel had provided each of them with the opportunity to speak candidly about it. One by one, after stating their names and profession, they indicated their feelings about living with Down’s syndrome. “I am slow. I don’t like it, but I’ve gotten used to it,” for instance.
As a nominally normal or normally functioning audience member, it took me a while to get used to it. I am sure I was not the only person in that audience to initially feel acute discomfort at being exposed to the exposure of these obviously disabled performers. I perceived them as embodying, if not a disease, then a set of limitations that have historically been concealed from most of us in our everyday lives. I was immediately beset by a number of questions: Was I intended by the director to be made uncomfortable? Was the underlying goal of the situation a therapeutic one? That is, “this will be good for you, expand your horizons, make you a better human being,” etc. Had the show been described to me beforehand, I would have tended to dismiss it on the grounds of my acute sensitivity to being condescended to in the theater. I might have said that I don’t go to the theater in order to become a “better human being.” In my own performance practice I avoid giving spectators clues to my intentions or to how they should respond, and as a consequence run the risk of confounding them.
Bel too was not offering us any clues. We were left on our own to deal with our ambivalences and discomfiture. To all appearances the performers were completely confident in their identities as performers, if not actors. We in the audience had to figure out where we stood in our presumed cognitively superior positions and shaky liberal tolerance. By the end, whether or not I had resolved these issues, I—and the overwhelmingly enthusiastic audience—was on the side of the angels. It was a unique experience, one that I am still assessing.
Trio A, a five-minute dance choreographed by me in 1965 has become a kind of signature piece. Over the years it has been taught to and performed by scores, if not hundreds of dancers. Recently, Linda K. Johnson, one of the five authorized instructors of this dance, taught it to three members of Axis Dance, a group located in northern California. The two male performers were wheelchair-bound, paralyzed from the waist down after two separate auto accidents. The third performer was an able-bodied woman. Linda sent me a video of a final rehearsal. Having never seen Steve Paxton’s workshops and performances with people in wheelchairs, I was astounded at how the two men approached my Trio A. With their agile maneuvering of the light-weight chairs, they even upstaged—perhaps unfairly—the able-bodied dancer. For me, the novelty of seeing such displays of adaptability, brought to bear on the nuances and exactitudes of a set piece of choreography, demonstrated a new kind of virtuosity. It was nothing less than riveting.
Their heads, upper bodies, and arms replicated the original moves of the dance, while the chairs were manipulated to follow the spatial and directional patterns of the traveling steps. What was most impressive was that they were able to maintain the unmodulated flow—a guiding principle of Trio A—with only an occasional disruptive attack as a chair was spun 180 degrees. One guy even sent his chair onto its back, with himself in it, of course, in a descent to the floor, only to right himself with little apparent difficulty.
The ostensibly provocative title of these observations, though intentionally ambiguous in its conflation of death and disability, nevertheless indicates a historical shift in social attitudes and opportunities for those who a century ago, if not destroyed at birth, would have been relegated to lives of marginalization and despair, but who, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, can be accepted as otherly abled. The cheerful candor of Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater performers and the physical resilience of Linda K. Johnson’s Trio A’ers are living proof that the mind and body can adapt to new challenges if society allows. I came away from both viewings with a feeling of expansiveness, akin perhaps to theirs.
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?