Jerome Bel

March 24, 2005

Jérôme Bel
Dance Theater Workshop, New York, NY

March 24–26, 2005

Reviewed by Nancy Alfaro


From the earliest moments of The Show Must Go On, choreographer Jérôme Bel invites the audience to become participants. As the opening strains of “Tonight” from West Side Story emerge in the darkened theater (the stage is dark or silent for nearly one-third of the show), you anticipate the “real” start of the show, get lost in the memories the music conjures, or laugh and sing along. This displacement of theatrical convention turns the theatergoing experience on its ear.

As the title song from Hair erupts, the stage remains dark. In the audience people laugh and wave their arms, others shush them, and a feeling of relaxed festivity prevails. An onstage technician manipulates CDs and executes light cues—there’s no Wizard of Oz-like mystery here.

The lights finally burst on as The Beatles’ “Come Together” gears up. The performers amble onstage, wearing hip, bottom-of-the-laundry-basket “costumes.” Forming a semi-circle, they take puzzled, bored, or aggressive stances, checking out the audience, which returns their gaze—or is it the reverse? They begin making barely visible physical shifts but remain almost still as David Bowie’s exuberant “Let’s Dance” begins. Then, at the song’s chorus, the dancers break into dorky club moves and the audience goes wild.

During “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic, the excellent, deadpan cast (many of them non-dancers) pair up, striking a “king of the world” pose with one partner cantilevered off the other. One couple, unable to support each other’s weight, falls flat. Throughout the song all the performers turn slowly upstage, struggling to retain their stance, their ridiculous bravura undeniably poignant.

Bel has grabbed pop culture by the horns and makes it work for him in a comedic way—because like all good comedy, it’s reality based. His audience bonded, realizing that for some of us, pop culture is not only unavoidable, it’s a guilty pleasure. We get the sinking feeling that on some level we all respond to the hyper-emotionalism of Titanic’s love theme. The Show Must Go On is brilliant. Is it dance? Who cares? It was so thought provoking and entertaining that the audience wanted it, in the words of Celine Dion, to go on and on.

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