The French choreographer and dancer has a reputation for charismatic provocation and radical reinvention. He'll put a mic on famous dancers and ask them to dance and speak to the audience simultaneously, telling the stories of their careers. He'll incorporate untrained "civilians" into a performance, asking them to stand on a stage with headphones on, listening and dancing to music the audience cannot hear. He'll collaborate with a Swiss theater company composed of actors with learning and mental disabilities and ask the actors to come on stage, one by one, and stand in complete silence in front of the audience.
"Jerome Bel is one of the preeminent, I don't want to say bad boys of postmodern dance, but he's a renegade; he's a radical; he's an intellectual; he's a provocateur," said Janice Ross, Stanford University's dance-division director and professor in the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies.
Ross was instrumental in bringing Bel to Stanford for an upcoming festival that celebrates his work. The festival runs Nov. 13 through Dec. 3, with live performances, a film screening and a free talk by Bel. Each event illustrates the ways in which Bel challenges and inverts dance traditions and norms.
In Nov. 13's "The Show Must Go On," Bay Area professional dancers, local residents and Stanford faculty, staff and students will be on stage, with headphones plugged in as they listen to a playlist of classic pop songs. All the people look to be free-form dancing in their own worlds, but when and where they move is predetermined. The dancers wear their own clothes; there are no props or set. A D.J. who would normally be backstage controlling the lights and sound cues sits center stage with his back to the audience. Any sense of performance in the traditional sense is stripped from the stage.
"So yes, you're seeing people perform. But, wait a minute: They're performing for themselves," Ross said. "The audience just becomes incidental."
"The Show Must Go On" was premiered in 2001 and has been performed on many stages since. In a 2008 performance at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, seen on YouTube, a group of 18 or so people stand scattered across the stage, listening to music via headphones. Some sway or nod their heads, just barely moving to a beat the audience cannot hear; some suddenly break out in song as if singing in the car alone, inviting laughs from the audience.
"This piece is questioning the relation of the audience with the performance," Bel wrote in an email to the Weekly. "It is questioning the need for representation, the unarticulated desire of the audience. Why are we all here in this space, all together spectators and performers? Why do we need to gather in this archaic structure as a theater?"
Ross echoed Bel's sentiment, explaining that the performance critiques the very space it's held in, Memorial Auditorium.
"That was the postwar model for what theaters had to look like: big boxes," Ross said. "So we start the festival in that space so he can basically explode it and (explode) conventions of theater with a work that, as I said, is emblematic of his spirit."
Ross said Stanford put out an open call to recruit both trained dancers and untrained people of all ages, body types, ethnicities and abilities to participate. They were asked to commit to 55 hours of rehearsal over 10 days. Each person's precise actions are personal, but they're set within a structured system. When they dance, for how long and where they are on the stage is all rehearsed beforehand.
The festival's second dance performance, "Cedric Andrieux," moves the festival to Bing Concert Hall on Nov. 18. It's an 80-minute solo piece, choreographed by Bel and performed by Andrieux, a French dancer who trained with the French Lyon Opera Ballet and performed in America with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Here, Andrieux speaks while he dances, performing sections of various ballets and Merce Cunningham choreography that marked his career.
The work parallels the 2004 Bel piece "Veronique Doisneau," in which the Paris Opera Ballet dancer of the same name bids farewell to her career. With a mic on, her costumes in her arms and no makeup, Doisneau dances and tells the audience about never getting the star role, about injuries she suffered, her income, her age.
"It's the deep backstage," Ross said.
Bel said "Cedric Andrieux" is meant to be a documentary-like investigation of sorts that allows dancers to share with the audience in a different way. "I have noticed that dancers are usually mute; they don't talk about their work. They dance but we don't ask them to talk. I thought dancers could have a lot to say from their experience of dancing."
The festival is also about more than performance. Discussion sessions are also built into the festival; a question-and-answer session with New York Times dance critic Claudia LaRocco will follow "Cedric Andrieux."
A discussion led by Peggy Phelan, a Stanford professor in the arts, drama and English, will also follow a filmed Bel performance, "Pichet Klunchun and Myself," screening Dec. 2 in Bing Concert Hall.
The film shows Bel dancing with Pichet Klunchun, a contemporary Thai dancer and choreographer. The 2005 performance is a cultural exchange, with the two having a dialogue — via dance and spoken word — about their cultural traditions.
This becomes complex: Bel was born in Montpellier, France, in 1964, but raised in Algeria, Iran and Morocco. He got his professional start in France, but also performed in Italy for many years. He studied not only dance history, but also philosophy. He said he is influenced by philosophers such as Roland Barthes and Gilles Deleuze.
There will also be a free discussion with Bel the day after the film screening, Dec. 3, at 11 a.m. in Pigott Theater.
The festival is linked to a new residential program at Stanford called ITALIC (Immersion in the Arts: Living in Culture), launched by Ross and two other Stanford professors, Jonathan Berger (music) and Scott Bukatman (film and media studies). A small pool of freshmen, 43 this year, will be selected to spend the year immersed in the arts, learning about the historical, critical, theoretical and practical purposes of art.
ITALIC collaborated with Stanford Live to host the Bel festival, and Ross said she hopes to continue bringing in a range of arts greats each quarter as part of the class. (Some ITALIC students will be on stage in "The Show Must Go On.")
"It's very exciting and it puts Stanford on this international dance circuit, finally," Ross said. Bel has performed only once before in the Bay Area, in 2009, she added. "(There's) New York, Los Angeles and the Bay Area has generally been passed over," she said.
Though Bel's unconventional, experimental work is celebrated by many, it's also no stranger to strong criticism. Some say he's pretentious; his work is not dance; his shows are uncomfortably provocative. (Bel said audience members sometimes ask him to give their money back. He doesn't.)
"If you look at it initially, you might think: 'Wait a minute, this is the biggest sham going on. There's no dance here. Where's the dance?'" Ross said. "I think it unsettles you. And if you stop there, then you're pissed off. But if you stay with it and let it kind of unfold in time — one of the beauties of dance — then I think you're taken to a different level of insight."
Info: The Festival Jerome Bel contains four events: "The Show Must Go On" (7:30 p.m. Nov. 13, $20-$50 general admission, Memorial Auditorium); "Cedric Andrieux" (7:30 p.m. Nov. 18, $32-$50 general, Bing Concert Hall); "Pichet Klunchun and Myself" (7:30 p.m. Dec. 2, $20 general, Bing); and a free talk with Bel (11 a.m. Dec. 3, Pigott Theater). Go to live.stanford.edu or call 650-724-2464.