In advance of our November 1–4 Jérôme Bel: Bookend Festival, performing arts curator Philip Bither reflects on the Walker’s decade-long commitment to this French conceptual choreographer’s work and development.
Since it began in the early 1960s, the Walker Performing Arts department has committed itself across artistic platforms and years (often decades) to key transformative artists. These artists’ embrace of constant evolution and self-challenge significantly impacted their art forms—in the process changing how we think about the live arts. Whether it be Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, or Meredith Monk in the 1960s and ’70s; Philip Glass or Mabou Mines in the ’70s and ’80s; Bill Frisell, Eiko & Koma, John Zorn, or Bill T. Jones in the ’80s; Ralph Lemon in the ’90s; or Cynthia Hopkins, Jason Moran, Sarah Michelson, or Young Jean Lee in the ’00s, each of these artist-Walker relationships, many of which continue to this day, share important DNA. They began when the artists were lesser known. The commitments encompassed residencies, presentations, commissions, new scholarship, and sometimes even exhibitions and acquisition. Looking back, they form something of a spine for Performing Arts at the Walker, allowing us (curatorially) and our audiences (experientially) to go deeper with these artists, engendering heightened understanding of their ideas, their artistic processes, and the impact they were having on their art forms and on our larger world. All of the relationships are based in deep connections between staff and artists, fueled by curatorial admiration, empathy, and passion.
Our ongoing history with French choreographer Jérôme Bel is emblematic of these affiliations. Since 2005, the Walker has been the most consistent home for Bel’s work in North America. When I first experienced his work in 2003, I was not only moved by its freshness and intelligence, but also taken with the contradictory tendencies he was somehow able to balance within himself. A dance conceptualist/philosopher noted for his intellectual rigor, he is also an unapologetic populist and humanist. An artist aiming to radically subvert dance and theater, he frequently proclaims his love of both disciplines and regularly creates structures for compelling movement framed by a brilliant understanding of theatrical time. While gaining respect in the halls of academia and in the thin air of contemporary art’s upper curatorial altitudes, he had a common-man’s disheveled, self-deprecating personality and a wickedly droll sense of humor. He invents works with strict frames and hard-and-fast rules, but within them he allows for great individuality and personal freedom. He refuses to subject human emotion to derision or even suspicion but instead creates work that elicit joy, discomfort, compassion, and ennui. Like most past Walker-connected performance innovators, his work is not universally praised—it spawns apostles and fierce antagonists in equal measure.
Several years ago, in the early stages of planning our 2016–2017 season, we decided to raise our commitment to Jérôme Bel to a new level. We borrowed the notion of a mid-career retrospective from our visual art colleagues, but befitting ephemeral art, we conceived of it as a retrospective with an elastic sense of time. We sought to devise a sort of festival that would “bookend” the four past Bel works the Walker had shown—The show must go on (in 2005), Pichet Klunchun and Myself (in 2007), Cédric Andrieux (in 2011), and Disabled Theater (in 2013)—by presenting Bel’s newest large-scaled work as well as a remount of an important early signature work. With these two works, we aimed to close the circle while filling in essential gaps for our audiences. To allow greater depth, we added in the middle an evening-long curatorial conversation with Bel including a showing of one of his most revered dance films.
Preparing for his visit this week, a few memories of our past Jérôme Bel works came to mind. When I first saw a tape of Bel’s The show must go on in 2003, I was totally intrigued, but not entirely sure what I was seeing. It felt like a new, almost dangerous but electrifying type of proposition by a theatrical artist to the audience. Several leading US presenters (Chuck Helm at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, and Cathy Edwards at New York’s Dance Theater Workshop) joined us to build a tour for this large-scale work (more than 20 people traveling from Europe), which would be the first US exposure to Bel’s work.
When I met him in Paris a few months after locking in the tour, Jérôme remained reluctant, convinced Americans would hate his work. I reassured him, but privately I wasn’t all that sure. We planned to present The show must go on in the opening months of the then-new McGuire Theater in April 2005, but when construction got delayed, I moved the performance to the Pantages on Hennepin Avenue, where I thought the historical theatrical trappings and more commercial setting offered an even healthier friction between space and content. While we struggled to attract full audiences, the nearly 1,000 folks who came out over two evenings connected directly with the tension, intensity, radicality, and ultimately humanistic experimentation. Jérôme was surprised but thrilled that Americans responded so positively. The total emptiness on stage at the start (as the DJ played “Tonight” from the soundtrack of West Side Story) and the other forms of minimalism and statis provoked people in different ways—nervous chuckling, shout outs, at one point two well-dressed couples out for a night on the town, jumped up in the aisles to create their own dance, the men whipping off their shirts and twirling them over their heads. It was a wild couple of nights. These many years later, The show must go on continues to tour the world, sometimes being re-cast and remounted by communities themselves.
Our next work with Bel two years later was called Plichet Klunchun and Myself, a piece that proved a creative and educational revelation. Thai master traditional dancer Klunchun demonstrated and explicated aspects of Thai traditional dance to Bel on a bare stage, then Bel in turn danced and attempted to explain some of his minimalist movement constructions to Klunchun. Sincere, open, and funny, the work felt like a deceptively simple lecture-demonstration format, but Bel had shaped it with theatrical flair and nuance. It offered audiences both a newfound understanding of Thai traditional dance and new respect for how obscure some of the tenants of post-modern dance can be to those outside its sphere. A simple, explanatory exchange in Bel’s hands was transformed into elegantly compelling theater, independent from elaborate staging or high-end technical design.
In 2011, as part of another mini-festival we organized centered around Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final legacy tour, we hosted Bel’s Cédric Andrieux, a portrait of the former Cunningham dancer performed in a movement-storytelling manner by Andrieux himself. Per Bel’s concept and shaping, Andrieux told and danced the story of his life, much of it built around his time with Merce, openly revealing how baffling he found Cunningham’s and Cage’s concepts at first, but sharing how after months it all clicked in for him. The autobiographical evening, shaped with Bel’s deft humanistic hand, offered audiences a new kind of window of understanding into Cunningham’s ideas.
Finally, in 2013, we invited a new large-scale work by Bel which seemed to represent the start of another major shift for him. Disabled Theater was a collaboration with Zurich’s Theater Hora, a company made up of accomplished actors with physical and cognitive disabilities. The work created a stir within the visual art and contemporary dance worlds across Europe, with responses ranging from rapture to critique. When I traveled to see it, I found it to be a deeply moving appreciation of the beauty, worth, and compelling individuality of each human. Many local audience members had as positive an experience as I had had, while for others it raised questions of representation, agency, and portrayal. While both Bel and detractors of the work shared the values of inclusiveness and of the importance to give voice and visibility to people with disabilities, the difference was in strategy and approach. It is a work that continues to resonate and represents a dialogue that continues to unfold, informing his latest creation that we will offer, GALA.
Having presented Bel’s works from 2003 to 2013, this “Bookend” festival covers unseen works from 2015 and 1995. GALA and the self-titled work Jérôme Bel showcase the longevity of Bel’s career and the diversity of his approaches. GALA is an unapologetic celebration of community within a rigid framework that is made fresh and new by the citizens of every city it visits. By contrast, Jérôme Bel, being remounted more than 20 years after it premiered (with its original cast), is startling in its sparseness and its efforts to strip away all but that which is essential for a dance performance—body, light, and sound—and present these elements in their most literal sense. Controversial to this day, Jérôme Bel functions as what fellow French choreographer Alain Buffard called “a minimalist manifesto applied to dance… It foils any attempt by the dancer and, likewise, the spectator, to interpret it emotionally. As a result, the subtle simplicity of this choreographic device allows for a critical reading of what is being done and undone in front of us.” I look forward to sharing with the Twin Cities the Jérôme Bel “Bookend” Festival of performances, discussions, and film screenings by one of the most inventive and debated artists of our time.