Review: The Show Must Go On by Jerome Bel
The Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne International Arts Festival, 17 October 2007.
The DJ (Gilles Gentner) unobtrusively steps out in front of the stage, a large pile of CDs in his hands. Watching him quietly settle in, I become keenly aware of the material weight of the digitised music he carries. Despite 'the show' not yet being 'on', this intensely ordinary pile of CDs carried out in front of the audience makes it clear that music is not simply something that exists independent of a material object, but rather is contained within concrete objects haunted by use. Songs come from this pile of plastic, and we use such songs to order and make sense of our everyday lives, as ordinary and extraordinary as that might be.
This might seem an overly contemplative entry into reading a performance built around deconstructive dancing to pop songs, yet Jerome Bel's framing of his work encourages this. The framing mechanisms are utterly transparent and often ridiculously arbitrary, yet they remain compelling, hilarious, and engrossing. They elegantly defamiliarise the landscape of popular culture, making tangible the complex entanglements between these songs and personal desire, memory, biography, and identity formation. One might speculate, as I'm sure the excellent dance scholar Andre Lepecki does in his book Exhausting Dance (as-yet unread by me, but ordered in an Amazon spree), that Jerome Bel's choreography is concerned with the intimate linkages between global capitalism and subjectivity. It's clear for instance that in his work Bel is concerned with how each of us perform ourselves to ourselves and also to others, how we present ourselves and are presented by forces out of our power, how we stage our identities in the contexts and spaces allowed to us by consumer capitalism, and the ways in which bodies stubbornly resist being erased even as they are forcefully written over. It's clear from a quick glance at his repertoire, with works such as Shirtology, Jerome Bel, and The Last Performance, that a key recurring concern is the formation and transmission of identity. (I was fortunate enough this week to be able to visit the study room at the Live Art Development Agency in London and view documentation of each of these works, and will hopefully post some thoughts soon)
The audience assembled, the show begins. The auditorium lights go down, and the DJ opens the tray of his CD player, carefully placing the first CD from the pile inside. Tonight. The song plays out its full length in darkness. As the audience get noticably restless, the DJ removes one disc and inserts the next. Let the sunshine in from the musical Hair begins, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, the lights come up onstage. This song too ends, and the same ritual of changing discs is repeated. At this point the man in front of me pulls out a book and begins to read. Another man walk out. The next song begins to play in front of a bare stage. Its feeling as though we the audience might be the victims of a cruel performative joke, being pressed to see how much (non) representational punishment we can take. It's been ten minutes, and the stage is still empty, bare of action, let alone drama. If we are, as Hans Thies Lehmann suggests, in a moment of 'postdramatic theatre', then this feels like a step beyond, a post-theatrical theatre. We pay to sit in an auditorium to soak up high culture, and are forced to bear the glaring absence of such culture. We look at the stage, once seen as a mirror up to nature, and see nothing reflected at all. I begin to speculate that this blankness might be a damning critique of the contemporary condition, but this seems excessively bleak. I can't really accept that this is all there is left to contemporary performance. Despite myself, I remain cautiously optimistic about the continuing value and utility of performance in the contemporary world. Performance might not be able to change the world, but it doesn't seem enough that the show merely 'go on' in such a continuing state of blankness. In this increasingly aggressive presentation of blankness, I feel the show interpellating me as a traditional audience member, with all the pejorative implications of this subject position. Much to my surprise I find that there is some truth in this. Against the blankness I find that my own aesthetic prejudices are uncomfortable but unavoidable. I find that I am bored, and am ridiculously anxious that such a state was so easy to produce. I thought that I was a better audience member than this.
Suddenly, so suddenly in fact that they appear as if by magic, eighteen dancers appear on the stage. Somehow I missed them stepping on, and after ten minutes of emptiness, their appearance onstage is a shock to perception. Against the brightly lit matte blackness of the formerly empty stage, the mass of dancers appear as a riot of colour and decoration, individuated by costuming (a motley collection of streetwear), and strikingly different looking body types. Arranged in a line across the stage, they simply wait, looking back at us as we look to them expectantly. The track ends, and we all wait for the DJ to make the next selection. The man in front of me puts away his book.
The next song begins, and still the massed dancers wait patiently. Then the chorus begins: Let's dance! And they do so with wild infectious enthusiasm, each by themselves as if for themselves, alone of the dancefloor of social life, yet displayed upon the stage before us. The songs continue to unfold, and the dancers obey the instructions of the lyrics: I want to move it (each repeats one movement for the duration), Ballerina girl (the men leave and the women each attempt balletic moves), All by myself (the company exits, and the DJ steps up to dance alone), La Vie En Rose (the stage lights turn pink), Into your arms (the dancers embrace each other), Imagine (the stage lights fade to black), The sound of silence (still in darkness, the sound fades out as well), Macarena (the dancers all do the Macarena), Killing me softly (the dancers whisper the lyrics as they fall into a heap of bodies while looking at the DJ). By turns witty, hilarious, fresh, exasperating and boring. Its a wild and thrilling ride, endlessly surprising despite appearing to be utterly predictable. Dance reduced to its representational degree zero, to the status of mere perfunctory task, is revealed to have much still to say about the state of being human.
Finally at the bottom of the original pile of CDs, the song we knew was coming: Queen's classic The Show Must Go On. The company bows, and we fulfill our audience function and applaud. They return and repeat the bow. And repeat it again, heedless of the diminishing applause. It seems that this bow is not for us, but yet another external compulsion acting upon the dancers, keeping them in thrall, and forcing them to entertain. The show must go on, and it does so relentlessly, the company rendered into bowing machines, compelled to repeat the end of the performance again and again until the instructions of the song cease. They enter only to enter again, denied the solace of good theatrical form. The applause has pretty much been exhausted, but some of us stubbornly remain to continue playing the other half of the theatrical game, as if proving our stamina, or claiming our centrality in the work of representation. As if to say: we know that you know that we know that what you are doing isn't really for us but rather an authorial demand, but we still assert our place in this. You deconstruct our consumption, but we still consume even so, and we even enjoy this. As if to say: the show goes on for us too, and we're still there with you.
At last the music fades for the final time. By this stage, much of the audience has departed, but it is clear that for some of us at least, that this show will continue to go on and on, playing out endlessly in the theatre of memory.
Image taken from Melbourne Festival website. Credits: Photo: Musacchio/Lanniell