Hong Kong Arts Festival

February 21, 2003

Dancers wearing thrift-store chic gyrated to pop hits in French choreographer Jerome Bel’s The show must go on at
the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Laurent Philippe

Hong Kong Arts Festival
Various venues

Hong Kong, China

February 21, 2003

Reviewed by Bernice Yeung

In his more than ten years as a choreographer, Jérôme Bel has earned a reputation as a provocateur. Routinely challenging traditional notions of dance and theater, his works?philosophical explorations of life through movement?have been controversial and confounding. Indeed, the Paris-based French dancer-choreographer says that he refuses to create pieces that merely entertain, and audiences throughout Europe (where he tours the most) have had violent reactions to his work: People have rushed the stage, angrily walked out of the theater, or thrown crumpled programs at his dancers. But as The show must go on reveals, Bel?s work can be full of charm and wit, and he?s able to push audiences to ponder some heady ideas while making them accessible and entertaining through a sharply ironic pop-culture sensibility.

A veteran of the French contemporary dance boom of the 1980s and early 1990s, Bel studied at the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine in Angers and has performed with choreographers such as Angelin Preljocaj, Daniel Larrieu, and others. In 1992, after he co-choreographed the opening ceremony of the XVI Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, Bel began asking himself difficult questions about his work and his purpose. He spent the next two years reading French philosophers, immersed in an intellectual inquiry into the meaning and spirit of dance and performance. When he returned to the dance scene in 1994 with a production entitled Name given by the author, he began skillfully blurring boundaries between audience and performer, life and theater.

The show must go on,
first performed in 2001 and on tour since then, is the latest of Bel?s remarkable works in this direction. A smart exploration of the way in which popular music infiltrates and influences our lives, the piece consists of mini-vignettes threaded together by hit songs from artists such as David Bowie, Leonard Bernstein, and Edith Piaf. With each song comes a shift in scene and mood?and the audience never knows what to expect next.

In one moment, the twenty-one dancer-performers (wearing thrift store T-shirts, Adidas sweatpants, or chic jean skirts) milled about as if posing for a Gap ad. The music changed and the dancers launched into ridiculous but enthusiastic gyrations, apparently inspired by whim rather than specific movement vocabulary. A few scenes later, there were no dancers onstage at all. But Bel?s message was most clear when, as Lionel Richie?s “Ballerina Girl” blared in the background, the female members of the troupe seemed suddenly inspired to act out their inner ballerina. The dancers fluttered awkwardly across the stage, and their movements seemed more reactive than scripted (though the dancers and Bel agree on movement beforehand and much of it was, in fact, rehearsed); their gestures were casual, amateurish, and even ungraceful. So, Bel seemed to cheekily ask the audience, “Is this dance?”

Ultimately, The show must go on is not what audiences came wanting to see. But aided by catchy hit songs and razor-sharp wit, Bel successfully forced viewers to question why they were there, to think about why dance and theater exist, and to treasure the remarkable?if sadly momentary?relationship that develops between performers and an audience.