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Artist Interviews

Jérôme Bel
March 21, 2005
National Arts Centre of Canada

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Jérôme Bel and I am 40 years old. I was a dancer for 10 years before starting to produce my own shows. I come from Montpellier, a city in the south of France, but I've never lived there. I've lived in Algeria, Iran, Morocco and South Africa. After my travels, I settled in France, where I took a number of dance courses and danced with several companies. After a while, I decided to do my own choreography.

How old were you when you first thought of becoming a choreographer? Was there a particular event that led you to choose this career?

I can't remember a specific moment. When I was a dancer, I was already interested in the process of developing our productions with our choreographers. I can't really pinpoint a deciding moment in my career direction. However, there was a determining period, when I worked on the opening ceremony for the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. I assisted the director and the choreographer. I realized that I was totally happy doing this work and that I got a lot of satisfaction from watching the dancers do what we had asked them to do. It was a very intense feeling. As I had made a lot of money (we were very well paid), I realized that I could stop working for a couple of years and then try to make it on my own. That's when I started working as a choreographer.

How would you describe your work? What makes your choreographic language distinctive?

My productions present a lot of problems for me. They contain so little dance that audiences are often extremely dissatisfied and want their money back, because they didn't see a real dance performance. My position on dance is a beat, if I can put it like that. Dance as dance doesn't interest me; I'm interested in it more as language. So my work is sort of discursive. Sometimes--and this may help people to understand--I describe it as a theatre of dance. Dance and also performance are the subject of my work. I try to step back and analyze what it is that forms the unique character of dance and what dance means to us, and I'd like to make audiences ask the same question. Most people don't want to think, they just want to have a nice evening, a good time and see dancers who are pretty and young lifting their legs. That's not what interests me. Sure, I love to see great shows too, but I'm trying to do something else. I realize that people won't understand it, but I'm sorry that they react so violently during the performance.

Where do you find your inspiration?

For starters, I don't talk about inspiration, because I'm not inspired by things. I think, I read, I go to performances. I spend a lot of time studying philosophy, sociology and psychoanalysis, and on the basis of current thinking in the social sciences and humanities, I try to apply my methods of expression to examine what performance is, specifically what live performance is. There are people on a stage under lights, and opposite them are other people sitting in the dark--it's the simplest of equations. That's the equation I'm examining. You can't really call it inspiration; it's more of a reflection. I chose a medium--for example, in The Show Must Go On, it's pop music. So I read a lot about the subject, I study what it means to individuals and to society collectively and then I start building something. I also criticize popular music, put it in perspective and I try to frame an inquiry about it. On stage, I always try to present a question rather than give my opinion. I don't think the stage is the place for that. I think I can express myself among my closest friends, but as an artist I have political obligations that require me to keep a distance from myself.

What happens when you go into the studio to create a work?

I don't work much in a studio. I work by myself at the computer. I write and make notes. Each production has its own technique, or rather, its own creative process. Trying to write a show is a solitary activity for me. I'm more of a writer than a choreographer. I write a kind of script or drama, then I meet the performers in the studio and try to explain what I want to come out of it. Naturally, there's a big difference between what I've written and what actually happens on stage. Otherwise, I'd just write a book. But I'm doing theatre, and it's important to me. So it's a two-stage process. Often the deciding factor is the failure of the previous show. Even if it was a success, I ask myself why and often create a number that's a direct reaction to what was successful previously. For example, if the first piece was silent, I'll put popular music in the next one. It's as simple and straightforward as that. I think I could create something out of a cup of tea. It doesn't really matter what I'm talking about in the end. I just need something concrete so that I can question or examine what is important for me and the performers--because I have to convince them. If I hope to convince the public, I have to convince the performers first. First myself, then the performers, then the public. If I can't convince the performers and I produce the show anyway, I will start to doubt myself and the production just won't work.

What impression do you want to leave with your audiences? What do you want to communicate to them?

As I just said, the audience is very important to me. First, I want them to realize that they are spectators, watchers. I want them to keep remembering that they are in a theatre, watching a show that is only fiction and representation. I'm not trying to seduce them into believing it's reality. I'm constantly telling them that it's theatre, and behind it, there's always someone called Jérôme Bel who's speaking, and they don't have to agree with what he's saying. I want them to be aware at all times, not hypnotized. They are not supposed to admire but to think. It's very clear. I really want to give them the tools to consider their own situation as people living at the beginning of the twenty-first century. What is it to be alive today? This is a question that concerns me a lot. I never work on the past, always on what belongs to us now. I'm not trying to overwhelm or dominate the viewers, but to open a dialogue with them.

What have been biggest challenge and the greatest satisfaction of your career?

I think the audience is always the biggest challenge. Like everyone, I have my own ideas about life, and one has to recognize that art, oddly enough, may be the only way to communicate. I don't feel superior to my fellow human beings; rather, I feel I'm able to communicate some ideas through the medium of theatre. My work is to communicate with the greatest possible number of people. Well, obviously not the greatest number because then I'd choose television. If I ever left theatre, I'd do TV. If I got a television offer, it would probably interest me. So that's the greatest challenge. As for satisfaction...when I think of all the money and energy invested in creating a production, and one evening everything seems to be flowing, a sensual equilibrium is achieved, and I feel that I'm at the right place at the right time and the audience is ready to hear what's about to be said to them--that's very satisfying.

What advice do you have for young dance artists?

I don't really have any advice because I'm still a new artist myself. I don't want to be a pontificating elder. Still, I'd suggest they go to see every possible show. I think that when you are doing this kind of work, you should know what everybody else is doing, even if you don't like it or you see something that's truly awful. Sometimes I find really bad shows are more helpful than really wonderful ones, because I tell myself that I don't want to do the same thing and I ask myself why. Then I can place myself in relation to my colleagues' choices and thereby gradually define my own artistic goals. You're always making comparisons and it's very helpful, even though it can be depressing: you can come out of a theatre and think you're going to stop doing theatre because it's not happening and it's useless. Despite all that, I think you have to see everything in order to learn.

What do you think makes an exceptional or successful dancer or choreographer? Is it something innate or is it learned?

Clearly it's something learned, something that has nothing to do with a person's natural leanings, in my opinion. What I think is important--and what interests me--are people who have thought, learned, studied and who manage to express their ideas on stage. I don't think success has much to do with quality. I know many marvellous artists who haven't been successful. I know many successful artists who are awful. Is this the way it should be? As far as I'm concerned nobody is exceptional, though things can be. I've thought about this question for the last 20 years and I've concluded that an artist is exceptional when he does things that interest me, when the questions he asks also concern me. Some artists that many people find very interesting don't interest me at all because I already know whatever they are saying; their performances raise questions that I've already thought about and answered. There are others where it's the opposite: I don't understand anything because what's being presented doesn't at all match my own inquiries. It might interest others, but not me. This is what happens in art. Ultimately, I'd say that what makes a performance successful is the possibility for a viewer to make a connection with an artist because the latter is working on something that interests him.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career?

All kinds of people, because I go to see everything and I'm interested in philosophy, literature, the arts, movies, etc. Names? In film, Jean-Luc Godard and Bussolini; I think also of Pina Bausch, whom I saw this year, Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Bob Wilson, Claude Régis and so many people that you know. In literature, William Foster is very important for me at this time. In philosophy, I'd say Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Louis Alceste; without them, I don't think I'd be here. That goes for Godard and Pina Bausch as well. And Bob Wilson, whose interest in time was very useful to me. There are also all the people I've despised; they also influenced me, but I won't name them. Who has had the biggest influence? I think it's all influence, and it's context that makes us what we are at any given moment. I often wonder how I got to be at the head of a big company that performs at the Paris Opera and tours all over the world. Why me? I really can't answer. Maybe because I had a feel for the pulse of our time and everyone--well, not everyone, because it's never been unanimous, but enough of my contemporaries--recognized it in my work. It interests them because it deals with their own issues and helps them to understand and keep moving forward.

If you could see into the future, what would you see, or like to see, for dance in general?

I'm sure dance will continue. This is one of the big questions I ask myself: How is it that dance and theatre, both very archaic traditions--especially theatre, which has existed for over 1,500 years--are able to co-exist with media such as the Internet, which are much more powerful in terms of technical possibilities and reach? I sometimes have the feeling that theatre people are like African elephants, who have to live in game preserves in order to survive. I don't really like this question but I have to answer it. I think that the future of dance and theatre is going to get very tricky because these disciplines are almost invisible next to television, Hollywood and the Internet. But maybe that very thing will be their strength. High production costs mean that the arts will always be somewhat elitist and will never be commercial. This may help them maintain their special status in the entertainment world. At least, that's what I hope.