The Ecstasy and Agony of Sitting in the Audience, According to Jérôme Bel

September 11, 2008

To kick off its “Crossing the Line” series, the Alliance Française had invited choreographer Jérôme Bel to give a lecture called “Last Performance.” Lucky for us, he jettisoned his planned speech and launched into another endeavor entirely. He explained that the talk he agreed to give a year ago is now online, so no need to repeat it. Two days ago, on the plane over from France, he drew up a list of his own experiences as an audience member. In this charming monologue with spontaneous movement illustrations, he recounted many moments of sitting in the theater and being impressed, dismayed, restless, or elated that ended in a low-key epiphany. And he was as communicative with his delightfully squirmy body as with his heavily accented words. He basically couldn’t stand still and it’s hard to imagine him sitting still in an audience. But he did many times, because clearly sitting in the theater is his inspiration for his choreography (which is all about questioning the performer-audience relationship).

     And his experiences in the theater are very similar to mine—or yours. We can all experience very intense things, and that’s why we come to the theater. Bel talked about Bob Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach, Trisha Brown’s Newark, Pina Bausch’s Carnation, (and skads more) all with a wonderful humor and élan. I didn’t catch the name of the person who mounted a piece in which she “killed” 30 cherries, each in a different way. Bel said he reacted most intensely to the one where she buried a cherry in sugar cubes; he confessed that being buried is his personal phobia. Over the span of 30 cherry “killings,” each spectator had their own worst dread dredged up.

     Bel’s series of anecdotes contained the garden variety realization we often arrive at in the midst of stimulating art. e.g. about Steve Paxton’s Satisfyin’ Lover from the 60s, he said. “They are a group but each is also totally unique.”

     Other episides were more psychological. I loved when he spoke about Bausch Palermo Palermo, how a big curtain concealed a huge wall, and after five seconds of seeing the wall, it toppled down. “My parents always told me not to throw things, but I kept doing it,” he said. “Since that performance, I stopped.” We don’t need to know the exact cause-and-effect logic. It’s enough to be reminded that a single performance can change one’s life.

     Another thing I loved was how he could change his mind about his judgment of an artist., describing a completely different reaction the second time around.

    Afterward he asked for questions and comments. Artist Liz Ross said she liked how he was performing and not performing at the same time. Miguel Gutierrez noted that Bel used the word masterpiece when describing one work (Satisfyin’ Lover), which plunged a few of us into conversation after it was over.

     But the main pleasure was in listening/watching Bel relive his responses to dance and performance. It reminded all of us (about 150 people gathered in FIAF’s “le Skyroom”) why we spend so much time in theaters. The potential for revelation is there; we just have to be alive to it.