September 13th, 2012

Why Dance in the Art World? Jérôme Bel and RoseLee Goldberg in Conversation

On Monday, September 17, the Performa Institute and NYU Steinhardt present Why Dance in the Art World?, an exciting evening where we will explore the history and future of the visual arts' relationship to and interest in dance. The panel discussion will include historian and author of Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet Jennifer Homans; choreographer, writer, and visual artist Ralph Lemon; MoMA PS1 curator Jenny Schlenzka; and Artforum.com editor and Artforum contributor David Velasco, moderated by Performa founding director and curator RoseLee Goldberg.

As we count down the days to this groundbreaking event, we will look back through Performa's archives as we search for the answer to "Why Dance in the Art World?"

Today, we have choreographer and dancer (and Performa 07 artist) Jérôme Bel in conversation with RoseLee Goldberg, November 2007:

Jérôme Bel: I am so happy to be presented in the context of Performa 07 because I feel more connected to some visual artists than to other choreographers. For the same reason, I am a longtime fan of your book, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present [1979], for its mix of visual art and performance.

RoseLee Goldberg: But originally you came out of dance. Were you were trained as a dancer?

Yes. I was trained as a dancer because dance came easily to me. Also, my teacher fell in love with me, so that was another reason to go on dancing. But at the same time I went to galleries and visual art exhibitions. So when I started to make my own work, some strategies from the visual arts were there.

I identify myself as a visual artist. I identify with the loneliness of the visual artist. I identify with Marcel Duchamp when he says, “Some artists continue painting because they are addicted to the smell of turpentine.” I just change it to, “Some dancers are addicted to the build-up of lactic acid that occurs while training—but it hurts after a while, and I don’t want training to be painful!” I also identify with Daniel Buren. I once read that Buren said, “I have no studio.” It was a very powerful idea for me—that everything could be in my head and not in a dance studio. So I saw these links and grabbed what I could from the visual arts for my own practice.

And how were you able to actually bring the two art forms together? Was it in a dance context?

Oh, yes—in a dance context. It became very clear to me that it had to happen in a theater. Recently I did an installation in a museum for the Lyon Biennale, and I know now that a museum is not my place.

Why not?

The relationship with the audience in the here and now is very important for me; I need to know the effects of what I produce. I love visual art. I love museums. I love galleries. But at the Lyon Biennale, I suddenly realized that they were not the right spaces for me. I need this meeting with you, with the audience, and I need to know that if I do something on stage, it affects you—and how you are affected affects me at the same time.

There is a continuous reciprocal relationship during performance, and that is what my work has been about since the beginning. What is the relation of the people sitting in the darkness to the people standing in the light in front of them? That is my most minimal definition of theater. Now, after Lyon—which was a failure, in my opinion—I would say that theater and the practice of relating to the audience is what I am working on. That is much clearer for me now.

Yet you are still able to cross over and draw an art audience into the theater.

Yes, the people who first started to understand my work had a lot of knowledge in visual art. Also, it is usually people who are very well informed, and who have a foot in one or two other fields, who understand my work. For instance, another burning point of my self-construction, let’s say, is philosophy, especially the French philosophy of Deleuze, Foucault, and Barthes. So that’s another way in. Right now, the most important thing for me is that people who are in visual art go to see theater, because otherwise they are not informed. Of course, if you are not informed, you go to see terrible things. And theater is dusty and boring [laughs]. It’s also expensive to attend, which is not the case with the gallery or museum. But it can really be useful for everybody. I’ve started to notice more visual artists coming to see my work recently, which makes me very happy. Until now “crossover” was usually dancers and choreographers going to see exhibitions, but not so much artists going to the theater.

And that’s what I am trying to encourage with Performa 07. I was very interested in the idea that Yvonne Rainer was here in New York beginning in the 1960s, and that her ideas jumped across the Atlantic in the 1990s to be picked up again, in a very philosophical way, by your generation.

When I started making performances, I didn’t know Yvonne’s work. I was introduced to it when I met Xavier Le Roy and Christophe Wavelet from Quatuor Albrecht Knust. Suddenly I realized how far she and some of her colleagues at the Judson Dance Theater pushed the boundaries of what can be defined as dance. I was already into Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, and John Cage. John Cage was so important for everybody.

Can you talk a little more about how you saw this history of American dance from a French perspective?

Well, the official history, as we knew it in France, was centered on Merce and Trisha. Their work was not only very powerful, but was also shown here regularly. We didn’t know anything about Yvonne Rainer. But Wavelet, who is an independent researcher, said, “This is very important. Let’s think about Rainer. Let’s study her work,” and it’s thanks to him that her 1970 piece Continuous Project-Altered Daily was reconstructed in Europe by the Quatuor Albrecht Knust [in 2001]. The discovery of this piece, and all the parts of dance history that it relates to, helped me to continue to work in the direction I had already defined for myself coming from several other starting points: post-structuralism, Minimal art, Pina Bausch, Godard, Cage, and so on.

Some other French choreographers, like Boris Charmatz, are more interested in other Judson Dance Theater artists, like Steve Paxton and his contact improvisation. Everybody has different threads connecting to this history.

You seem to connect with the more conceptual work that came out of Judson, like Rainer’s. And you work on your own—without a studio, creating dances in your head. Are you training people to learn your way of thinking, or do you teach classes at all?

No, no, no. I am very much alone in the first part of my working process. Then I meet the performers to see if my ideas are shareable, and finally, the last step is to share those ideas with the audience! I think my performances are the best way to share my thinking, no? But in fact, I am not always understood, so I made a “catalogue raisonné” online, in which I try to explain my work.

We have this wonderful piece of yours, Pichet Klunchun and Myself, in Performa 07. How did this performance come about?

I was in Bangkok, where I intended to make a solo for Pichet, but there was a traffic jam and my taxi couldn’t find the theater, so we only had the afternoon to rehearse for a premiere that same night. So I thought, what can we do tonight? We had nothing, but we had been talking in order to get to know each other—so I said, okay, we will talk. Let’s find two microphones, and we will just keep on talking.

So it was like an instant performance?

Yes—we said we would talk about meeting each other. Who are you? What kind of dance do you practice? Blah, blah, blah. For me, it was not a performance at all. I even had us move to a gallery space instead of performing in the theater, because I didn’t think it was really a performance. When I went back to Paris, I said, okay, this is finished. But, fortunately, Frie Leysen, curator from the Kunsten Festival des Arts in Brussels, was in Bangkok that night and called me two weeks later.

And she asked you to perform it again in Brussels.

Right. And I said no. I love talking with artists—it’s my favorite occupation—but it’s not a performance. Frie disagreed, and convinced me to come. So Pichet and I went to Brussels, prepared a bit more, and we did it. Now it’s been going on for years, touring the world, bringing us to unexpected places like Iran, many countries in Asia—places my work wouldn’t ever have gone without Pichet and the intercultural content of the piece. A lot of non-Western dance and theater festivals could relate to this work.

Personally, it has helped me realize what I had been lacking in all my previous work: I was not letting myself speak. When I work with dancers, we speak most of the time in our rehearsals, but it never appears on stage. Even though there are misunderstandings, the spoken language is the most articulate way for a human being to communicate. As a trained dancer, I don’t really know how to use it, but my goal has always been to be as precise as I can, because all of my work is built out of precise ideas. Dealing with language—the tension, the gap between the body and spoken language—has always been one of the major purposes of my work.

I imagine that the conversation you have onstage with Pichet during this piece changes with each performance. When you prepare to perform this piece on various nights, do you think, “I have a new idea tonight,” or, “I saw something on the street in New York that we might incorporate?”

No. We always begin in the same way. But later on, if I see something new in the performance, or if I think about something during the show, I can change a question, or skip it, or ask about a detail I hadn’t noticed until then. It’s a very performative way of thinking.  

Theoretically, it’s interesting to analyze this in comparison to the traditional theater model—a play by Beckett, for example. When you’re performing a Beckett play, you have to respect this wonderful writer and his script, because the guy is dead and the only thing left is his printed text. Not that we are at all comparable to Beckett, of course [laughs], but we—Pichet and myself—we are alive. We are performing ourselves. We are the two authors of the play. Every night we can change it, because we have that “author”ization. But in truth, all theater is not only a written text. It’s words—spoken words—and every night you speak those words differently, even if they’re by Chekhov or Shakespeare. Every night you say them in a different way because, as you said, if something happened earlier that day, it alters your feelings as a performer.

And in terms of the pure theatricality of the piece, you’re not bored with it yet?

No, no. When we started, I said, okay, after six months we’ll be finished. I was sure that it would be awfully boring. But it’s not, because there is this potential to change everything every night.

There are two dominant objects in the performance—your chairs. Are they always in the same place on stage? In a video of one performance I saw you were sitting on the floor.

Yes, in the beginning we sat on the floor, because we started in Bangkok, and in Bangkok there are no chairs. I mean, they have chairs, but people sit on the floor, so that’s where we were.

Was the audience on the floor too?

Yes. And then we realized that in the West, people were sitting on chairs, and we were actually more comfortable in chairs. So it depends where in the world we’re showing it.

Are there other cultural specifics, for example when you performed in Africa, was there a sense of African ritual?

Depending on where we perform, it’s clear whether the audience is “choosing” Pichet or myself. When we are in Asia, they are behind Pichet, and I am the foreigner. When we are in Europe, they understand me better, and Pichet not as well. In Africa, they were really behind Pichet. For example, when we were in Tunisia and we got to the part where we talk about marriage, I said, “Well, in the West to get married is very old-fashioned. Nobody does it anymore.” And Pichet said, “In Thailand you need to marry first, before having children.” At this point the entire audience clapped for him. I was shocked. Sometimes the audience supports us by laughing, but in Tunisia, they showed me that I was being provocative, and that I was the bad West.

In Southern Africa, in the Zulu tradition, you have a baby first and then you get married. The idea is that the woman must be fertile, so you only get married after the child comes.

Ah, I did not know that! But it makes sense.

Why do you think your performance has become such a hit around the world?

I am very surprised that has happened! It’s hard for me to analyze because I am inside it, and the show only works when I am really there with Pichet, concentrating on him and trying to learn from him for my own practice. It is not a diplomatic exchange. Rather, I am interested in his knowledge—the tools of his performative art form can be useful for my own work. And of course meeting other performers, like Pichet, is very interesting for me—it means that I am not alone anymore! [laughs]

Is that good or bad?

It’s good! Until now it was all about me. All of my works were about myself. I might have twenty performers on stage, but they were all representing me. It was an obsession with myself. This project is opening me to otherness.

So you could do this performance forever.

We will see. What’s at stake is how far into analyzing our own practices we can go. Will we ever be able to understand everything? Sometimes I think describing the movement of lifting your arm above your head could be endless.

This interview was excerpted from Everywhere and All at Once: An Anthology of Writings on Performa 07.  Why Dance in the Art World takes place at Judson Memorial Church on Monday, September 17. Join us

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