For the past 3 weeks, I performed in Jérôme Bel’s Ballet (New York). For me, it was an exercise in communication around failed attempts, around striving to achieve something personal. For the piece Jérôme Bel assembled a troupe of 13 movers and charged us with the task of performing a selection of dance phrases. We tried to execute a balletic pirouette and Grand Jeté, we waltzed, we performed a 5 minute silent improv, we did the moon walk and ended the piece not with a bow, but a performance of a bow. The heart of this piece lived in the unique relationships we as performers forged with each other. We were a mix of professional and non-professional dancers, with different physical abilities and handicaps. The piece was as much about the dancing as it was about watching our different bodies express themselves. The journey we took you on was the journey of our attempts. Of our courage and yes, of our failures. Here is a snippet of my experience dancing Ballet (New York) in the Marian Goodman Gallery, the first of three locations we performed in.
I danced with a ballerina. A real ballerina. For a moment, in the silent Improv, I held her in my arms, her back to my bare chest, her toes trapped in their point shoes propelling her across the floor, while I surged behind her cradling her shadow. Just being so close to her, watching her move, was a study in elegance; holding her a was a fantasy I was unaware I held close to my heart. But it speaks, I think, to a common desire: to be the man who dances with a ballerina. It’s the fantasy of being handsome and tall, of being strong, of being the essence of those glorious bits you remember from the Nutcracker in the third grade, those memories which still take your breath away, dancers sweeping across the stage with rat masks on, lighter than air, stronger than steel. This is what ballet is to me, a deep yearning. Though we as individuals may not be able to do it, we can all strive towards it - towards that ethereal elegance. Dancing with a ballerina made me feel like a Disney prince. Sure, I was a prince who had glitter on and cracked nail polish from a week ago, not to mention last night’s makeup, but I was a prince all the same. A prince on my own terms.
Then, as soon as I became that prince, she was gone. My body fell into the floor, I crawled across the gallery, contorting my body, pounding cement. While the shift of movement styles may seem incongruous, it felt at the time authentic and right. My expressions of "dance" are valid because they are mine, even though they are not technically proficient, even though I am, without question, “failing”.
It’s okay to fail. In fact, it is liberating. The context of the gallery does not excuse our technical imperfections, but rather makes them worthwhile. My lack of training is obvious: I can’t do a pirouette, my Moon Walk is unintentionally more reverse goose step then anything else and my Grand Jeté has a flair of the cardboard about it.
Yet beyond our failures, you could see our attempts. In this piece, we the performers were being that which is admirable in humans, striving for something beautiful even when we know we will fail. It’s an odd place to occupy as a performer. Personally I felt as if my body and identity had been distilled into an ‘object’ to be admired, inspected, visually dissected and I was okay with this. I was there, moving, trying to be emblematic of a certain form of life that represents something about what it means to be a modern New Yorker. Striving to express who I am. To be one dancer in a tableau of diversity.
To me, dance—the language of our bodies—has become incredibly codified. It is as an art form often reserved for the young and the pretty, to those with the most able of bodies and the best grasp of tempo. Yet, this appreciation comes at the expense of varied and unique expressions. In tasking us with exploring all of these dance ‘forms’, even briefly, Bel was asking us to question what dance is when removed from a dialogue with the specific bodies we expect to perform them.
We were encouraged to be dance, to be art, to move through the space of gallery and be liberated and humble with ourselves and our bodies. It is rare to be encouraged to just be yourself and not to be judged. This may have been a show for an audience, but it felt like it was a gift for us, the performers. We got to come face to face with ourselves and say yes, you, with your flaws and your failures, you are beautiful, you are art.
Jérôme Bel’s Ballet (New York) was co-commissioned with Marian Goodman Gallery. Co-presented with Marian Goodman Gallery, Martha Graham Dance Studios, and El Museo del Barrio. Supported by Institut Français à Paris and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the U.S..
Shelton aka Professor Cupcake is a writer/performer with the experimental downtown theater collective The New York Neo-Futurists. He recently received his Mres in Queer Theory and Performance Art from Goldsmiths University in London. You can reach him on Instagram/twitter as sheltiep or check out his blog.
PERFORMA 15: WRITING LIVE involves an international group of curators, critics, artists and scholars, bringing together a unique mix of different voices in a network of critical writing and debate around Performa 15. Throughout the biennial the participants contribute to an ongoing conversation through a wide-ranging and cross-disciplinary understanding of themes, concepts, and issues of live art and performance with substantial academic and historical consideration. WRITING LIVE is directed by Marc Arthur, and includes PERFORMA15 Writing Live Fellows Nicholas Croggon, Ayanna Dozier, Shelton Lindsay, Andrew Ragni, Macushla Robinson, Leah Werier, and Gillian Young.