Part of a generation of choreographers who rose to prominence in the mid-1990s, the French choreographer Jérôme Bel explores the relationship between choreography and popular culture, dancer and spectator, as well as our understanding of art and contemporary dance.
What was your first experience with the performing arts?
As far as I can remember, I started putting on small performances for my family. I was about 7-8 years old and I used to adapt little funny stories I found in books. I made up a theatre by stretching a thread on which I hung a cloth that represented a stage curtain. I chose the costumes and props and cast the actors (my sister and some friends). It was a lot of work but the show itself lasted no more than 5 minutes. That was my first step as a … director.
As a performer, I remember an incredible experience. In school at the age of 10, I had to go to the blackboard to recite a poem, and it was so intense that my legs started shaking dramatically. I had never felt a sensation like that before. It wasn’t pleasant or unpleasant, I just know it was of unparalleled intensity. I think I’m like that when I go on stage: I don’t particularly like it, but it’s always special.
What did you want to become as a child?
At 11 years old, I decided to become an artist. I told myself that painting must be very difficult because it takes a lot of practice to draw well. Music also seemed very complicated because of the solfège. Dance, as far as I know, seemed impossible because I knew that it required a lot of effort, but I told myself that an actor does what anyone can do: talk, eat, drive a car, and that it was much easier than the other arts. So I decided to become an actor.
Which performance kept you awake at night recently?
Familie by Milo Rau. The performance evokes global warming at one point. I think it was the first time this issue was brought up for me on a theater stage. It was devastating because at the time I was going through a depression caused by what psychologists now call eco-anxiety. I burst into tears: it was a catharsis. And since we all wore masks in the theater, it was very uncomfortable to cry with the mask on. So I had a second catharsis, this time related to the pandemic situation. It was overwhelming. I was crying while feeling the relief of the purging that catharsis produces. I understood that at that moment I was witnessing the first tragedy of our present time, that of the climate crisis.
Then in the days that followed, I was still thinking about the piece, talking about it to all my friends who have seen the performance… And I realized because the performance ends with the suicide of the characters, that I had forgotten the idea of the possibility of suicide. Philosophically, I have always been very fond of the idea of suicide, but since I became a father it had become unthinkable, because of the responsibility for my child. But now that the child is grown up, this possibility – which entails for me a potential liberation from suffering – suddenly glimpsed again. Paradoxically that helps me to live. Familie is an example of what Art is capable of by symbolizing situations that I cannot cope with alone.
And which performance is unforgettable?
Piezas distinguidas La Ribot
Hamlet Peter Zadek
Savannah bay Marguerite Duras
Semiotics of the Kitchen Martha Rosler
Le récit de la servante Zerline Klaus Michael Gruber
Meinwarts Raimund Hoghe
Dialogue with Charlotte
Sacre – The Rite of Spring
An Evening with Judy
La Conférence des oiseaux Peter Brook
Impressions de Pelleas
Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes György Ligeti
Fish story The Wooster group
To you the birdie !(Phèdre)
The Hairy Ape
The Town Hall Affair
Lenz Caterina Sagna
Teatro Amazonas Sharon Lockhart
Forever young Roy Faudree
Einstein on the beach Bob Wilson
The CIVIL warS
Pelleas et Melissande
Lecture on nothing
Not About Everything, Daniel Linehan
Rosas danst rosas Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker
A Love Supreme Salva Sanchis / Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker
Les filles du chef Grand Magasin (Pascale Murtin & François Hifler)
La vie de Paolo Uccelo
le tour du monde des chants d’amour
Les aventures de Harry Dickson
L’encyclopédie des joies du coeur
Nos oeuvres complètes I
Nos oeuvres complètes II
Le meilleur moment
5ième forum international du cinéma d’entreprise
Les rois du suspense
D’orfèvre et de cochon
grammaire étrangère 1, 2, 3 ,4
Le cantique des cantiques Claude Régy
La Terrible voix de Satan
Jeanne d’arc au bucher
Variation sur la mort
Brume de dieu
Rêve et folie
Ursonate Kurt Schwitters
May B. Maguy Marin
Ligne de crête
La colonie pénitentiaire Mathias Langhoff
Admiring La Argentina Kazuo Ohno
Satisfying lover Steve Paxton
Quizoola! Forced Entertainment
12 am: Awake & Looking Down
Instruction for forgetting
And on the thousandth night
The coming storm
Complete works: Table Top Shakespeare
Conte d’amour Markus Orhn
The three sisters Youri Progrechnikov
Katona Josef Teater
The three sisters (android version) Oriza Hirata
Park Claudia Triozzi
Pour une thèse vivante
Boomerang ou le retour à soi
Avanti Tutta,30 ans dans un an, tant pis pour ceux qui sont fatigués
The Rite of Spring Pina Bausch
1980 – A Piece by Pina Bausch
On the Mountain a Cry was heard
Two Cigarettes in the Dark
Le sacre du printemps Vaslav Nijinsky
L’après midi d’un faune
Queer Stuart Sherman
Mùa Emmanuelle Huynh
Self unfinished Xavier Le Roy
Product of circumstances
Product of other circumstances
Mouvements fur Lachenmann
Le sacre du printemps
Giselle Jean Coralli & Jules Perrot
Giselle Mats Ek
Les noces de Figaro Peter Sellars
Le marchand de Venise
Schwarz auf Weiss (Black on White) Heiner Goebbels
La edad de oro Israel Galvan
Quad Samuel Beckett
Datamatics Ryoji Ikeda
No Dice Nature Theater of Oklahoma
Life and times
From popping to pop or vice-versa Bruno Beltrao
Too legit to quit
La mélancolie des dragons Philippe Quesne
L’ effet de Serge
Jardinería humana Rodrigo Garcia
Arrojad mis cinizas sobre Mickey
Accidens (matar para comer)
A Mary Wigman dance evening Fabian Barba
Hexentanz Mary Wigman
Im Bade wannen Susanne Linke
Set and reset Trisha Brown
If you couldn’t see me
Accumulation with talking
Group Primary accumulation
Opal loop/cloud installation
Man Walking Down the Side of a Building
Walking on the wall
Floor of the forest
L’Amour au théâtre
Death is certain Eva Meyer Keller
I am a demon Pichet Klunchun
Walking in an exaggerated Bruce Nauman
Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square.
Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk)
ooglyboogly Tom Morris & Guy Dartnell
The Serpentine Dance Loïe Fuller
Sleeper guts William Forsythe
In the middle somewhat elevated
The loss of a small detail
The second detail
Impressing the Czar
O Samba do Crioulo Doido Luiz de Abreu
Herses Boris Charmatz
Con forts fleuves
programme court avec essorage
Levée des conflits
Danse de nuit
Etrangler le temps Odile Duboc / Boris Charmatz
Waw Myriam Gourfink
Une lente malédiction
Suite for five Merce Cunningham
Moeder and kind Alain Platel / Arne Sierens
Stop Quartett Jonathan Burrows
Both sitting duet J.Burrows/Matteo Fargion
The quiet dance
The speaking dance
weak dance, strong questions J.Burrows/J.Ritsema
This situation Tino Sehgal
Hate Radio Milo Rau
Five easy pieces
Daemons Frank Castorf
Humiliés et offensés
La dame aux Camélias
La cousine Bette
Les frères Karamazov
Die Kabale der Scheinheiligen – Das Leben des Herrn de Molière
La casa de la fuerza Angelica Liddell
Vacances vacance Ondine Cloez
Katema Lucinda Childs
Dance Lucinda Childs/Sol LeWitt
La nuit des rois Christof Marthaler
Die zehn Gebote (Les Dix Commandements)
Meine faire dame (Un laboratoire de langues)
+ ou – 0
Das Weisse vom Ei (Une île flottante)
Bekannte Gefühle, gemischte Gesichter
Les antigones tg STAN
Pièces courtes (1-9) Maxime Kurvers
Naissance de la tragédie
Perhaps she could dance first and think afterward Vera Mantero
Continuous Project-Altered Daily Yvonne Rainer
Let the Artists Die Tadeusz Kantor
The Dead Class
Today is my Birthday
Or press escape Edit Kaldor
Heidi Ho René Pollesch
Parades & changes Anna Halprin
Voyage au bout de la nuit Romeo Castellucci
Sul concetto di volto nel figlio di Dio
The Four Seasons Restaurant
Go down, Moses
Uso umano di essere umani
Democracy in America
Moses und Aron
La Flute enchantée
(M)imosa Trajal Harrell, Marlene Freitas Monteiro, François Chaignaud, Cecile Bengoléa
Antigone Senior Trajal Harrell
In the mood for Frankie
Jiuta Tamasaburo Bando
Savušun Sorour Darabi
Huddle Simone Forti
Accompaniment for La Monte’s “2 Sound
Time’s Journey Through a Room Toshiki Okada
Five days in March
Pratthana – A Portrait of Possession
81 avenue Victor Hugo Olivier Coulon-Jablonka
La Jet Set Gintersdorfer/Klassen
Fever Room Apichatpong Weerasathekul
Hosotan Tatsumi Hijikata
Yellow towel Dana Michel
prélude Isadora Duncan
Apollon Florentina Holzinger
Liberté Albert Serra
Re-Paradise Gwenael Morin/ Living Theater
Inori Karlheinz Stockhausen
Prometeo Luigi Nono
Cock cock cock who’s there? Samira Elagoz
About Kazuo Ono Takao Kawaguchi
Black Box Music Simon Steen-Andersen
Run Time Error
Continuum Félicie D’Estienne D’Orves/Eliane Radigue
Put your heart under your feet … and walk! / to Elu Steven Cohen
BLINK Michelle Moura
Good Boy Alain Buffard
Dying swan Anna Pavlova / Michel Fokine
Petrushka Michel Fokine
What is your favorite place to be?
The place where I learn.
“We are responsible for what is happening to us today. So, if we continue to live like this, there will be no theatre at all, that’s for sure!”
Where would you like to show your work once?
in my neighborhood.
Who taught you the most in your life?
Roland Barthes , Kazuo Ohno, Barbara Stiegler, Michel Foucault, Raymond Roussel, Valérie Dréville, Frantz Fanon, Marcel Proust, Trisha Brown, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Martha Rosler, Jean-Luc Godard, Pierre Huyghe, Pierre Bourdieu, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Donna J. Haraway, Guy Debord, Marie Collin, Hermann Melville, Pascale Murtin et François Hifler, Helmuth Lachenmann, Françoise Dolto,Umberto Eco, Carl André, Marquis de Sade, Anna Halprin, Chantal Ackerman, Sol Lewitt, Suzanne Lafont, Georges Perec, Roberto Rosselini, Theater Hora, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bruce Nauman, Andreas Malm, Anton Tchekov, Isadora Duncan, Paul B. Preciado, Aristotle, Le Corbusier, Sigmund Freud, Bob Wilson, Jorge Luis Borges, Xavier Le Roy, Pier-Paolo Pasolini, Marcel Duchamp, Pichet Klunchun, Marguerite Duras, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Gilles Deleuze, Jeanne Balibar, Jacques Rancière, Daniel Buren, John Cage, Jan Ritsema, Tsaï Ming Liang, Dada, Vaslav Nijinsky ,Claude Régy, Yvonne Rainer, Samuel Beckett, Toni Morrison, Kabuki Theater, Robert Bresson, Maria Ribot AKA La Ribot, the Bauhaus, Christophe Wavelet, Abbas Kiarostami, Pina Bausch, David Hammons, R. W. Fassbinder, Karl Marx, Simone Forti, On Kawara, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Spinoza and Judith Butler.
What does your workplace or atelier look like?
My first workplace is my brain, then it is my computer, then the brains and the bodies of the performers. I don’t use a studio so much because I don’t like to rehearse. And anyway, for two years now, I have been rehearsing mainly in a video conference from my kitchen.
Do you have a ritual before you go on stage?
None, I have no superstition, I find it absurd. If someone says to me ‘break your leg’, ‘to toi toi’ or ‘merde’, I tell them that I don’t believe in God or in another higher entity. I tell them that the success of the performance depends only on the work I have done! I am an author, I am the only one responsible, I am not just before the premiere going to beg for a supernatural force’s help.
What is the best thing about your job?
Do your parents like your work?
When I started doing my work, which was quite challenging and not very successful, I remember thinking about them and deciding that I didn’t care what they thought. It was important for me to get away from what my parents would think.
Does theatre have an impact?
On me absolutely, even the worst pieces interest me. The theatre has shaped me as an artist, of course, but also as an individual. The theatre has acted as a mirror, but it has also shown me the way to a multitude of life possibilities. I was able to have a richer life. I am eternally grateful to the Theatre and Art in general.
With whom would you like to collaborate once? Are there certain artists you feel related to?
I don’t like to collaborate. I like my practice because it allows me to immerse myself in my own subjectivity and for this I need to be alone, immensely and endlessly alone, in order to free my imagination and my desire, to free them from the social and artistic bonds that I believe collaboration imposes.
I feel close to many artists. Most of my friends and lovers are artists and I love the whimsical and sometimes extravagant life we share. In fact, as I have a very ‘artistic’ social life, the core of my artistic process requires the most extreme solitude.
Who would you like to see collaborate on a piece?
I have no idea.
Did you ever have a special encounter with an audience member?
Once after a performance of the piece Jérôme Bel in Marseille, I was at the theater bar having a glass of wine when an audience member came up to me, asked me if I was Jérôme Bel, I said yes, and he punched me in the face.
What is the most recent note you made?
I don’t remember but it must have been yesterday, at the Centre Pompidou, with the Chinese dancer and choreographer Xiao Ke. We are working on a new production in which I am present on the theatre stage while the image of Xiao Ke is projected on a screen thanks to video conferencing from her flat in Shanghai. This new theatrical prototype raises many questions and I give a lot of notes.
Is art your life?
Absolutely! But since I had a child, fatherhood has become a big part of my life. Watching a child grow up is one of the most fascinating performances I have ever seen!
If you had the chance to start again and choose a new career, what would you do?
Being a choreographer.
Recently I was so disgusted by the hypocrisy and lack of courage in the field of performing arts in the face of global warming that I thought I should stop working in this rotten field and become an activist. But in fact, I realized that my position as a ‘famous’ choreographer gives me the opportunity to publicly sound the alarm about the climate crisis. In addition, because of the pandemic and the closed borders, several curators around the world came to me to ask me to make performances in their theaters and festivals because they knew that I had been working for some time without traveling. In the last year I have never worked so much.
Do you think the theatre will survive in the future?
In fact, we have just seen exactly what to expect with the current pandemic. Theaters are closed almost everywhere in the world. I think this is just a premise. There will be other pandemics or other disasters. And this is a consequence of our lifestyles. This virus has spread because the deforestation – that we produce by eating meat and chocolate, using palm oil, and drinking coffee – destroys the ecosystems, which allows the virus that once lived deep in the forests to be more easily transmitted to humans. We are responsible for what is happening to us today. So, if we continue to live like this, there will be no theatre at all, that’s for sure! At least not in the form we knew until recently. This is why we – producers, directors, performers, technicians, choreographers, spectators, costumes, light, and set designers, writers … – must change our theatre practices at all levels, technically and economically of course, but also symbolically, starting today.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.