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Jérôme Bel may be the only choreographer who fielded a steady stream of job offers during lockdown. While the performing arts ground to a halt everywhere, at one point, the French conceptualist – best-known for the cheeky ways in which he has challenged conventional dance wisdom, and for his work with non-dancers – found himself working on “seven pieces at once”, he tells me, with collaborators scattered across Europe and Asia.
There is a good reason for his sudden popularity: in 2019, Bel made the decision to stop working in ways that would involve flying, due to the climate emergency. That means no air travel for himself, after almost three decades of a successful international career, but also for his dancers and assistants. At the time of his announcement, many in the dance world couldn’t believe that Zoom sessions might be a viable substitute for in-person studio time.
A year and a pandemic later, however, no one is laughing. Institutions and artists worldwide have pivoted to virtual rehearsals, with some turning to him for advice. “It’s as if I’d had a head start,” Bel says. “I knew how to work in a context where travel was impossible for everyone.”
True to the topic at hand, Bel and I are not in the same room. The 55-year-old choreographer, who rose to fame in the 1990s with provocative productions that occasionally eschewed movement entirely, only gives written interviews these days – a prospect that is enough to fill many journalists with dread. Far from being dull on paper, however, Bel sends pages and pages of candid, opinionated answers. (Sample: he “stayed in Paris like an idiot” during lockdown, he says, instead of “running away to the countryside like smart people did”.)
He is writing from Switzerland, where his latest world premiere, Dances for an Actress (Valérie Dréville), took place in late September at the Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne. It belongs to the long list of pieces Bel has made for just one performer – another reason why social distancing is less of an issue for him. He calls this one “highly experimental”: in it, he asks Valérie Dréville, a renowned French actor with no professional dance training, to embody landmark choreography by the likes of Pina Bausch, or Butoh luminary Kazuo Ohno.
As often with Bel, who likes to toy with the audience’s expectations, Dances for an Actress tests out a theory: that some dance works can function like a play’s text, and be wholly reinterpreted through improvisation, without imitating their physical form. “Behind the steps that are apparent, what’s most important is the psychological energy, the inner life, the fantasy,” Bel says of the pieces he chose.
Dréville admits taking on dance history was “intimidating,” but she sees a continuum between dance and the work of physically inclined theatre directors. “I lived in Moscow for a year to work with Anatoly Vasiliev, for instance, and his actors trained every day in techniques drawn from Chinese martial arts.”
Bel has often turned the spotlight on non-professional dancers. The 2015 work Gala, for instance, showed amateurs’ clumsy, relatable attempts at ballet or waltz steps. (Company Company, a film version of one scene from Gala, will be shown at Belfast’s Catalyst Arts Gallery until December.)
Still, Bel was keen to work with professional performers like Dréville again. He believes he “reached a limit” with amateurs. “They mostly want to have fun and experience success, and that’s all very well, they deserve it.” But he missed “the tragic dimension of theatre”.
Tragedy was on Bel’s mind last year when he chose to quit flying. While he had taken steps in years prior to limit his carbon footprint, he admits to feeling like a “hypocrite” and falling into a depression when he realised one day, in February 2019, that four of his assistants were travelling to Lima in Peru and Hong Kong to stage his work.
Did he worry at all about his career? “Yes. Unfortunately, the dance world is stuck in a system of extreme globalisation,” he says, hinting at the touring circuit that sustained many companies pre-pandemic. He is scathing about the most powerful of his dance contemporaries, whom he deems “no longer contemporary”. “They sign petitions because they’re famous without taking any action. They’re not all that different from current politicians.”
Bel describes rehearsing over Skype as “a 50% visual and hearing impairment”, yet he has honed the process. His latest trick, he says, is to have a dancer in the studio with him in Paris to replicate what he asks of his virtual collaborators and get a better sense of the results. In the past year, he has created pieces for dancers in New York, in Shanghai and in Taipei, and calls them co-authors. “The circumstances mean I have to let go more, to have more trust in the dancers.”
While Dréville was able to create in person with Bel ahead of Dances for an Actress, she says the choreographer took a similarly collaborative approach. When they first met, he gave her a copy of The Ignorant Schoolmaster, by the philosopher Jacques Rancière. “Jérôme is interested in people, in what they give off.”
Bel has other experiments in store. During lockdown, he worked with the Chinese choreographer Xiao Ke and now intends to stage his dance portrait of her as a performance happening simultaneously in Shanghai and in Paris, where he will comment as she performs over video conference. Bel will also return to Lausanne next year for a project addressing the climate emergency, with the British director Katie Mitchell – who also has a no-flying rule – and scientists.
And he has been impressed with the activist streak of younger artists. “They want to work without travelling the globe in the way my generation did,” he says. “The dance community is going through drastic change right now. It’s for us to adjust in order to remain in sync with a world in need of transformation.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Jérôme Bel: ‘Dance is going through drastic change – we must stay in sync’ | Dance