Jèrôme Bel’s “The Show Must Go On”

Stanford University, November 2013

It is performed on a classical stage with an apron, black velvet curtains and wings; red velvet framing the proscenium arch; and orchestra and mezzanine seating sections. Memorial Auditorium at Stanford is huge; orchestra and mezzanine sections combined make 1700 seats. It is not sold out, but it is more than half full. The cast is comprised of performers from a variety of milieus, featuring members of the community: local professional performance artists and dancers, computer science majors, even a couple Stanford groundskeepers. Jérôme Bel and his choreographic assistants have led them through 60 hours of rehearsal; they wear  “street clothing” that is picked to look everyday. Though you might be tempted to think otherwise, there are few factors of the piece which are spontaneous or unplanned.

In The Show as a whole, Bel stages 18 discrete pieces that each chip away at the codification of dance. The piece is choreographed, but it does not use any of the vocabularies of ballet, postmodern dance, or any other “art dance” subgenres. The movements throughout are not disciplined, nor do they require skill, attention to rhythm, musculature—Bel is not concerned with displays of virtuosity. In fact, often he is not concerned with dancing at all: the first three numbers play to an empty stage, as the audience shifts in its seats to see if others are as confused as they are.

“Tonight” from West Side Story tops the show off as the lights dim and we wait for the song’s duration in darkness. Is this a joke? I don’t know Bel’s sense of humor, but I assume something funny is going on when this song from a movie musical is followed by “Let The Sunshine In” from another movie musical, Hair. Slowly the lights (i.e. the sunshine) come on, but we’re still waiting for any sign of a performer, aside from the DJ-like fellow standing below the stage like a conductor, with a stack of CDs and sound system instead of a baton and watchful orchestra.

The third song finally provides the first opportunity for investigation: “Come Together” by the Beatles seems to summon the cast onstage. They simply walk on, stand there, look as if they can’t imagine you finding their stillness odd or their presence interesting. The cast stands still onstage, neither looking out at the audience nor avoiding its gaze. They are simply observing their space; I could have imagined they had stumbled onto a stage for the first time, without any idea what it was or for what purpose it existed. They shifted their weight occasionally, but stood still throughout the rest of the song and into the first verse of the next: David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.”

That is, until the titular line in the chorus, an invitation to dance. And obeying the song, they do! The break of this tension is enormous, and it looks like there is nothing else the dancers would rather be doing, and that they are each dancing to or for no one but their each individual self.

They stop whenever the verses pick back up, continuing each time Bowie’s voice repeats his instruction. The potential mounts in each moment of stillness. Suddenly we realize that the previous stillness, the previous empty stage with full light, the previous dark stage with “Tonight” blaring, all of this has led us here, to this transcendent moment. Between this chorus and the next, they form a semi-circle and look out again. When the chorus returns, they dance in the semicircle. They do not look up out at the audience towards us, nor to each other. The dancers are not concerned with us watching. Bel said (in an informal interview he gave me) that he placed the cast in a semicircle, so that they could not dance “with” each other, nor could they see each other. Within this formation they are able to create their own private space amidst each other, and amidst the voyeuristic eyes of the audience; their gaze is turned inward.

During the respites between dancing, my mind wanders. The semicircle does not seem to match what the individuals are doing; surely this type of dance was not meant to be done in any sort of formation, I think. This thought then prompts a question: What “type” of dance was this? Where is it meant to be done? And though this thought would return to me during later songs in the piece—“I Like to Move It”, “Private Dancer”, “Ballerina Girl”—this segment seemed to most clearly represent a rejection of the idea that dance needs a codified vocabulary. Their gestures are not symbolic, or interpretive, or expressive, they are “just” dance, plain and simple. There is a certain instantaneousness which resists any interpretation: they are not communicating subtext, and they are showing us all that there is to see. Though you might want to anticipate what happens next, by the time “Let’s Dance” ends, you cannot. The eighteen discrete sections of The Show Must Go On means that you are given no clues as to what CD might be used next

In The Show Must Go On, Jèrôme Bel flexes his control muscle and then repeatedly releases it. Some things are exquisitely controlled, “like lacework”, others are not and cannot be controlled by him. How does one dance “Let’s Dance” correctly? There is no answer. Bel said that it is meant to be done as if alone in one’s kitchen. It’s creative and subjective, it’s “trying to find the state of it even though they’re not dancing alone in the kitchen.” In this way Bel submits control to the actors onstage, but also to the music that plays throughout. He chooses the songs, yes, but within them he has the dancers submit to what the song tells them to do, shaping their choices within that framework.

As I was watching The Show, I did wonder: was the piece a work that was “just entertaining” and lacking profundity or artfulness? The fact that each popular song played had the capacity to transport the audience to earlier memories and associations with that song, thus putting the power of the situation into the beholder, suggests that the work is doing is not quite—or not just—aesthetic. That said, the audience is never allowed to forget that this is a theater, there is a proscenium stage with people standing on it, and that makes them fundamentally different from us. We are always aware of the fourth wall.

Bel has said that he has a preoccupation with “finding new forms” because, he argues, we are now in a new age that infiltrates all the work he makes (it is arguably the driving force behind it). Maybe what is needed is a new type of invitation to the audience. Moments of stillness provide one sort of invitation—you don’t even have the dancers’ onstage motion to distract you from your own mental meanderings.

Addressing the audience with light provides another. In “La Vie en Rose,” Bel once again literalizes the lyric—”life in pink,” or in terms of colloquial English, “life through rose colored glasses.” So, to give us the feeling (or the suggestion of the feeling, at least) we are seeing the world this way, Bel shines gentle pink light upon the entire theater, stage, house and all. We instinctively look all around at the unusual moment, and see not the world overly optimistically, but we are perhaps made aware of the troubling sort of mob that any performance gathers. Traditionally, we go to the theater to find hope, to find help in our desire for optimism. Bel gives us a literal representation of what this looks like if we succeed too well. We are self-reflexively present, aware of our roles and implications as audience members. And perhaps this motivates us to be more present and attentive.

As I watch, I struggle to find resonance: each song is discrete, and there is no indication that the previous song will lead to the next one. Within the songs, most of the actions oscillate: they do one action on the chorus, alternating to another action on the verses (which is often doing nothing; or, enacting stillness). On the other hand, because of the very fact that it seems to follow no logic suggests that every moment has infinite potential to be the moment, the zenith or nadir of the piece, from which the rest flows logically (backwards, in hindsight, and/or going forward). One song ends, the CD pops out, a new one pops in, and the show races away again. Perhaps in the brief silence between songs we are given the opportunity to have a conversation with the empty or frozen stage. But once it begins again, we are not allowed this as the pop music blares and we are absorbed, by either our own memories or by the dancer’s engaging movements.

The songs in The Show Must Go On are poppy, chart-topping, not a single one not thoroughly lodged in the mainstream. It feels designed to steal your attention away from the present stage moment and to your memories of when you first heard the song, how you love or hate it, etc. At the same time, it gently nudges you to imagine all the other audience members and the entire cast: “What does my date imagine when they hear “La Vie En Rose”? “Killing Me Softly”? Are they taken to memories of past lovers, pleasant or unpleasant, for me to feel jealousy? These questions sound silly because they are: using pop music in the piece is designed to take you to this place of silliness. Music is a strong influence; pop music an almost undeniable temptation. I dare you to stay cerebral the entire time, whether you are a first year grad student or a tenured professor or a person who likes to read philosophy. I am certain that at some point, willingly or no, you will find yourself gently transported, bouncing along on the clouds of memory.