CN D Magazine

#5 march 24

Jérôme Bel, Albeit With No Jérôme Bel

Belinda Mathieu

Tomas Gonzalez et Igor Cardellini, from Jérôme Bel by Jérôme Bel, Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne, 2021 © Sabina Bösch

In 2019, Jérôme Bel publicly announced that he would no longer be traveling by plane for ecological reasons. Since the French choreographer relied on touring as an income stream, he opted for a compromise: a year before the pandemic forced the dance world to turn to video rehearsals, he started teaching his work online, from afar. In 2021, he then teamed up with British director Katie Mitchell and Switzerland’s Vidy-Lausanne theater to imagine how theatre might adapt to the climate emergency. As part of the project, Sustainable Theatre?, they devised a way to pass on productions that didn’t involve Bel, or Mitchell, being physically present or even rehearsing them from afar. Local performers who learned Jérôme Bel this way spoke to CN D Magazine about their experience reinventing Bel’s work for themselves, locally.

Alone on stage, seated behind a computer, Jérôme Bel types on a keyboard and voices comments on video excerpts from his past shows that are being projected behind him on a big screen. The performance, a conference-style retrospective of the choreographer's body of work, is emblematic of his early career and of the conceptual, deliberately unspectacular style of dance of the 1990’s. Entitled Jérôme Bel, a nod to a previous eponymous piece, the solo premiered at the Ménagerie de Verre in Paris in the 2021 and is intimately connected to the choreographer’s personal history and stage career. This “auto-bio-choreo-graphy,” as Bel calls it, is now touring across the world without its creator, who stopped flying to performance venues in 2019 for ecological reasons. Through a detailed script and several virtual meetings, Jérôme Bel now entrusts the piece to other artists to stage and perform it in theaters across the world, including Milan, Zagreb, Amsterdam, Budapest, Liège, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires and Hong-Kong

Maria Magdalena Kozłowska and Pankaj Tiwari, from Jérôme Bel by Jérôme Bel, Holland Festival, 2023 © Eva Roefs

Theater-makers Maria Magdalena Kozłowska and Pankaj Tiwari, who performed their version of Jérôme Bel last June in Amsterdam, familiarized themselves with the script during a residency in Gandhinagar, India. “From there, this European testimony seemed particularly strange. It became like a fiction for us,” they say. For this man and woman, respectively from India and Poland and both younger than Bel, embodying the show’s creator became almost a comical endeavor. “For us, putting ourselves in the shoes of a white cisgender man in his fifties was quite satirical! We’re from another generation, and our idea of what constitutes a career is vastly different… In our mouths, his words became a mantra, a sort of positive affirmation for a dream trajectory. Our critical perspective also opened a dialogue between generations, countries, conceptions of what art, identity, and legacy are.”

Italian choreographer Marco D’Agostin, whose version will be performed in Milan in April, has also tried to look for differences and mismatched elements, by giving the role of Jérôme Bel to female dancer Chiara Bersani, with whom he is co-directing the piece. “It was important for me to put Jérôme’s voice in Chiara’s body, because it’s a female body, and also because her body has never experienced dance as Jérôme’s has. Her body dances from a whole other perspective [editor’s note: Bersani has osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic condition which means she is less than 3 feet tall].”

Ayelen Parolin, from Jérôme Bel by Jérôme Bel, Théâtre de Liège, 2023 © Moovizz

The Swiss duo Igor Cardellini and Tomas Gonzalez, who performed the piece for the first time in Lausanne in June 2022, adopted the opposite approach by sticking to Bel’s vision as much as possible. “We remained very true to the original script. Tomas recites Jérôme’s text in the first person,” says Igor Cardellini. To get in character, Tomas Gonzalez posed as Bel on social media and in a humorous photo exhibition open to the public before the show. On stage, however, his performance is more neutral. “The performance is simple at the beginning of the show, and a text is even posted to explain our approach to the public. Everything is revealed, in a form of anti-spectacle that is close to Jérôme Bel’s approach.”

Tomas Gonzalez et Igor Cardellini, from Jérôme Bel by Jérôme Bel, Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne, 2021 © Sabina Bösch

For all these artists, staging Jérôme Bel means respecting several constraints: performing the piece only in their local town, not wearing any costumes, and keeping scenography to a minimum. “I think two things are at stake here,” explains Tomas Gonzalez. “On the one hand there is a common, very defined script, and on the other, we have a lot of leeway, to see what each artistic team is going to come up with.” Some don’t hold back, like Marco D’Agostin and Chiara Bersani, who plan on transforming all of the original show’s video clips into live performances, thanks to local Milanese dancers. But for Tomas Gonzalez, the main issue is the ecology of the project: “Is the energy we invest in each new production with a new team more viable and sustainable than touring the piece? Or do we need that type of performance, precisely, to open a conversation and invite theaters to take a stand?” Beyond concern for ecological sustainability, these various versions also reveal differing worldviews, opening an international dialogue around the legacy of an artwork and the blurring of the definition of authorship.

Belinda Mathieu is a journalist and dance critic who works for several publications, including Télérama, Mouvement, Trois Couleurs, Sceneweb, and La Terrasse. She holds degrees in French literature (Université Paris-Sorbonne), journalism (ISCPA) and a BA in dance from Université Paris 8. She is currently enrolled in their MA program and she continues to reflect on her practice and what is at stake for critical texts in the ecosystem of contemporary dance.

Jérôme Bel by Enoch Cheng with Dick Wong
From March 14 to 16, Hong Kong Cultural Center, Hong Kong

Jérôme Bel by Jérôme Bel
From April 2 to 7 in MC93, Bobigny

Jérôme Bel by Ariel Osterweis
April 4 and 6 avril in REDCAT, Los Angeles, USA

Jérôme Bel by Marco D’Agostin with Chiara Bersani
From April 17 to 21 in Piccolo Teatri di Milano, Italy

Jérôme Bel by Marco Mazzoni
May 3 and 4 mai in Cango, Florence, Italy