Magazine article Artforum International

Jerome Bel

Magazine article Artforum International

Jerome Bel

Article excerpt

Sadler's Wells, London

IN THE LAST PERFORMANCE (A LECTURE), 2004, French choreographer Jerome Bel narrates his own development, from dancer, during the 1980s; to student of poststructural theory, in the '90s; to his present-day status as a leading proponent of European conceptual dance. The piece serves as a quasi retrospective of his oeuvre and his thinking; it is quintessential Bel in its self-referentiality and desire to recapitulate previous works. Bel sits casually behind a desk at the side of the stage, a fur coat slung over his chair, occasionally glancing at his laptop while telling us the checkered history of his reception--of the ideas that didn't come off, the audiences that walked out, the need he felt to rethink his basic assumptions. It is dance without dance, closer to the classic artist's talk, albeit delivered with more self-deprecating charm and illustrated not with PowerPoint but with video and live action.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In Bel's recent reprisal of The Last Performance (A Lecture) during his retrospective "Showtime: Jerome Bel 1994-2005" at Sadler's Wells in February, his longtime collaborator Frederic Seguette came onstage three times to interrupt the narrative. Each time, Seguette performed Bel's Shirtology, 1997, so that in effect we saw two pieces spliced into each other, functioning as mutual illustrations. Shirtology is conceived as an extremely long striptease in which the performer peels off shirt after shirt (at least thirty of them), allowing a long moment to elapse between the removal of each garment. The first time, the shirts are numbered; the second, they are sequenced by color; and the last, they bear slogans that Seguette follows as instructions (such as dance or die, replay, shut up and dance, and relax). It is important to note that when any dancing does occur in the piece--at most perhaps three times--it is the kind of charmingly amateur boogie that most thirtysomethings resort to at drunken parties. Shirtology is typical of Bel's performances in its nonvirtuosity, literalism, and drawn-out, deadpan humor. At the end of each sequence, Seguette shuffles offstage and Bel resumes his presentation.

The central focus of The Last Performance (A Lecture) is Bel's Last Performance, 1998, a piece that he vows never to perform again, primarily because it was a crashing failure. (Of course, his narrative demands that the audience was outraged and walked out, but it is hard to imagine that their response was so extreme.) Bel will now only talk about the event-hence the lecture--and show video clips when necessary. The "original" Last Performance can be read as an attempt at a choreography degree zero: Bel had written to a number of choreographers asking if he could appropriate one of their dances as his own. Turned down by Pina Bausch (he was particularly keen to use a German Expressionist), he finally received a positive reply from Susanne Linke, who let him use her emotionally wrought solo Transfiguration, 1976, for a female dancer dressed in a white slip and set to the elegiac second movement of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet. Bel's appropriation involved repeating Linke's dance four times, each time with a different dancer (including himself) in the same white dress. In his recounting of this piece, Bel tells us that it was a meditation on Gilles Deleuze's seminal text Difference and Repetition, it is hard to imagine many Anglophone artists getting away with such a comparison, but Bel pulled it off. He also invoked Peggy Phelan's influential and contested 1993 essay, "The Ontology of Performance," in which the theorist argues that the essence of performance is its evanescent unrepeatability, and he pointed out that The Last Performance proved Phelan's argument to be true: Each time Linke's dance was repeated, it was different (even if only minutely so). One of Bei's aims was to attune the audience to these microshifts in perception and interpretation. …

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