Interview with Jerome Bel

Jérôme BelWhile the big dance number at this year’s Melbourne Arts Festival has to be the Merce Cunningham residency, there are some other equally remarkable choreographers on show. Take Jérôme Bel for instance, the enfant terrible of French contemporary dance, whose work has garnered that heady mix of consternation, castigation and celebration synonymous with avant-garde.

A relatively small number of Melburnians saw Bel’s work at last year’s festival, when he appeared in a short run of Pichet Klunchun and Myself. That show, one of my personal favourites in a strong field, was a two-way interview between Bel and Klunchun, a classical Thai dancer. It placed the two artists on a bare stage, with nothing but bottled water, chairs and a laptop to call their own. In a little over an hour, they queried and conversed their way into some kind of mutual understanding of each other’s work to which we were also privy.

I spoke to Bel by phone from his home in Paris and, thanks to the time difference, his watch had just ticked over to 9am, which was, he noted with a dry rasp, an early start to the day. I began by asking him whether the person on stage with Pichet Klunchun was actually Jérôme Bel or a persona he invented for the purposes of the piece. “It’s me!” he laughed, then extrapolated: the piece that eventuated was not the original design, Bel was supposed to choreograph a solo work for Klunchun to perform at the Bangkok Festival but, because of chronic traffic jams and his cab driver getting lost, the ten scheduled rehearsals quickly diminished to only four. With opening night looming, the two had so far only talked and so, out of necessity as much as anything, created a work that opened the fourth wall to their rehearsal room and exposed their process as individuals and collaborators to the public. As to the identity of his on-stage self, Bel is gleefully assuring that there is no pretence. For someone who had become uncomfortable performing, he found the piece a liberating avenue to be himself on stage.

Pichet Klunchun and MyselfOne of the strongest aspects of Pichet Klunchun and Myself was its dramaturgical coherency and efficiency. Bel emphasised that while aspects of the piece are still developing from season to season, the structuring of it as a strict two-sided interview rather than a free-form dialogue maintains an inherent tautness. It is, in his words, a case of “structure and freedom” rather than “structure and sadness”—a reference to Lucy Guerin’s work from last year’s Melbourne Festival that Bel missed seeing but whose title he clearly loved.

I wondered whether, though there has been no opportunity for further collaborative works, his time with Klunchun and their repeated conversations between Occident and Orient had impacted on Bel’s outlook on his work. After a moment’s thought, his response was emphatic, “yes, it has changed the paradigm of my work completely.” Previously, his work was trying to engage the political on stage but always with a sense of “how will Jérôme Bel do this?” Now, his emphasis has shifted towards an interest in the Other, in interviewing others for their ideas, rather than being constantly concerned with the “Jérôme Bel” of the third person.

His ability to deconstruct himself in an interview with such vigour is the sign not only of his intellectual credentials but a confidence in his capacity to bring these ideas to bear in his work. Indeed, his development from a dancer to choreographer was a thoroughly intellectual migration. He worked as a dancer for many years, an experience he urbanely sums up like so, “dance, dance, dance, enjoy, enjoy, enjoy, feel, feel, feel, express, express, express.” But amidst all the merriness and expressiveness, Bel felt something was amiss. While some would start reading their horoscopes a little more intensely or take up tarot cards, he took up books by Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. The Show Must Go OnFrom post-structuralism to discourse theory, these big men of French philosophy and linguistics gave Bel reason to pause and, like Descartes, be certain only of his doubt.

From this departure point of doubt, Bel wondered how he could intellectualise dance. In order to link thought to dance, to mesh the physical and the cognitive in his work, he felt that something radical was needed. He began with the notion of erasure, “to bring the mind on stage, I had to remove the physical.” For those familiar with Derrida’s work, the notion of erasure (sous rature) is of course a central concept underpinning his deconstruction of signifiers. For those unfamiliar with Derrida, it would be an impossibly long day in the office if I were to try to decode that last sentence. In any case, the point for Bel in bringing deconstruction to dance was that it would make people look twice and hopefully reconsider what was being attempted on stage. In his excitement at piecing this together for me, Bel worked his way down a cul-de-sac of logic and came up with the phrase “physical discourse” before exclaiming, “No! That’s an impossibility.” But there was a discourse of some kind, or at least a problematising of contemporary dance. However, this process of erasure is also a limitation—if the only way for Bel to bring thought on stage is through subtraction, eventually he arrives at zero. In this respect, Bel cites his heroes, William Forsythe and Trisha Brown, as choreographers who manage to make “thinking dance” without subtraction.

This limitation that Bel discovered in his own methodology has, in concert with the revelations of his work with Pichet Klunchun, moved him further away from dance and closer to language-based theatre. Describing his experience of choreography, he noted that typical rehearsals are largely talk and that there is a sudden break with that when it comes time for performance—the dancers, who are normally verbal interlocutors with one another, become mute in front of the audience. Bel feels that the performances should reflect the rehearsals, just as it did so clearly in Pichet Klunchun and Myself. But “I won’t direct Chekhov or Beckett” he assures me, though he has been offered the chance. Indeed, his move to theatre is not so much about directing but about devising. He has a fundamental suspicion of printed texts, feeling that the (absent) playwright can still exert an unacceptable “authority” over performers and directors. So, in response, he imagines a theatre of oral authorship, where the performers are the living writers of a language whose existence is isolated to performance and not reproduced in printed forms. In other words, the performance is always “live”, always focused on performance rather than adaptation. Clearly there are precedents for this kind of work in theatre’s long history but that is not to say that what Bel is working towards is somehow redundant, if only for the sheer passion and experience that he brings. Bel speaks with the eager and mercurial energy of someone still in that luscious moment of epiphany. Consumed by remounts and touring, he has not had the opportunity to put his new paradigm in motion, but his previous paradigm will be here for our enjoyment (or enervation) come October.