“Artist’s Choice: Jérôme Bel/MoMA Dance Company” (October 26, 2016), Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

This year, Crossing the Line, the annual New York performance series sponsored by the French Institute Alliance Française, featured Jérôme Bel, presenting three works and one film over the course of the festival.

For more than twenty years, the French choreographer has pioneered a kind of dance that highlights the biography and particularity of the performer. He is uninterested in virtuosity and dance as a mystifying spectacle, presented at a remove from the audience.

The three live pieces by Bel in Crossing the Line this year — at the Joyce, The Kitchen and the Museum of Modern Art — gave ample opportunity to take stock of his work. In some iterations, it can provoke the spectator to watch more closely. His Disabled Theater (2012), not in Crossing the Line but in the 2013 edition of the Performa biennial in New York, featured persons with cognitive disabilities, such as Down syndrome, and although it raised ethical questions about exploitation, it no doubt gave its audiences an unusual and probably uncomfortable confrontation with disability in the flesh.

dric Andrieux, in the 2010 Crossing the Line festival, handed the stage to the dancer for whom the piece was named. Andrieux, a professional dancer, narrated his life verbally and also danced to illustrate the styles of the different companies to which he had belonged. He told an unvarnished story, speaking of his pain and injuries, as well as the joy of working with choreographers he esteemed. Bel has produced similar biographical pieces, such as the one seen in the film ronique Doisneau (2006), which is part Crossing the Line this year.

The conceptual aspects of Bel’s live work in Crossing the Line are, however, weakly developed and less compelling. These facile crowd-pleasers are understandably attractive to festival programmers, like FIAF and the many others at which Bel has performed internationally, but they have no bite.

“Jérôme Bel” (2016), The Kitchen, New York (© Herman Sorgeloos)

As part of Crossing the Line, Bel’s 1995 eponymous performance, Jérôme Bel, was co-presented by and at The Kitchen in a New York premier. The performance, which was the second piece of choreography he ever created, displays the bodies of the four performers, who are naked throughout. They write their names and body specs on a wall at the back of the stage, to stress that they are not representing someone else’s story or persona. A light carried by one of the four, an older woman, illuminates the stage. In one sequence, a woman pinches her rolls of fat and stretches her skin around her body. There is some puppetry of the penis by a male performer, whose pubic hair is arrayed artfully around his genitalia. The performers use a red marker to write on their bodies. One of them pisses on the floor, and they use the piss to wipe away the body specs written on the wall.

Appealingly elemental, it is what it is, and what it is raises the question of what dance is. Focusing attention on the identity, physicality, and specificity of the performer can be enlightening, as it highlights gender, disability, race and other aspects of human difference. This approach has long been a staple of visual art performance, specifically feminist performance emanating from the West Coast in the 1960s. Bel’s version is not uninteresting. Its originality lies wholly in bringing this approach to dance and dance venues.

Jérôme Bel’s “The show must go on” (October, 2016), Joyce Theater, New York (photo by Yi-Chun Wu)

The show must go on (2001), presented at the Joyce Theater, has a cast of twenty, a mix of professional and amateur dancers, dressed in street clothes. The concept is very simple. A DJ plays a song and the cast does some kind of enactment, sometimes a dance, and at other times a pantomime or a stunt related to the lyrics of the song; for the theme from the 1997 film Titanic, the performers posed like the film’s stars at the prow of the ship. The DJ, who has a solo turn on the stage later in the show, cues up the music with theatrical slowness on a CD player. The playlist includes Beatles songs (“Yellow Submarine”) and lots of golden oldies. The audience clapped and sang along, even supplying the vocals when, during Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the DJ killed the audio several times (get the joke?). The cast was diverse across lines of gender, race, and age. One of the performers used a mobility scooter.

The pop songs played for their full duration in order to support what was often a one-line joke. Inevitably some of the individuality of the performers and their relative skill at dance manifested themselves and could be observed at leisure, but, after the first half dozen songs, this field was exhausted. In some quite long stretches, the songs played to an empty stage, a mildly amusing experience the first time, but not so as repeated.

Jérôme Bel’s “The show must go on” (October, 2016), Joyce Theater, New York (photo by Yi-Chun Wu)

Almost identical in concept, a new work called Artist’s Choice: MoMA Dance Company featured members of the museum’s staff, dressed in loose street clothes, dancing mostly to pop songs. Some of the members of the ad hoc company showed dance training or innate ability. Each took a turn leading while the others did their best to follow. One black male dancer in African costume delighted the audience with his artfully committed, athletic performance to drum music.

The work is well intentioned, and the experience can awaken the viewer to appreciate the differences among people in everyday life. We can hardly have enough of this lesson today, now that, thanks to the FBI and the Russians, racism and fascism have triumphed in the US with the election of the vile demagogue Donald Trump. The people who could benefit most from the diversity on parade in Bel’s performances, unfortunately, are unlikely to attend Crossing the Line, though many of its events occurred only two blocks from Trump Tower.

With the cumulative experience of Bel’s three pieces in Crossing the Line, however, the non-virtuosity of the work became less appealing. The conceptual framework is limited, one might even say a bit lazy; the politics timid. Bel’s position concedes too much to accessibility and demands too little of its spectators.

Paul David Young is a Contributing Editor for PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art (MIT Press). His book newARTtheatre: Evolutions of the Performance Aesthetic, about visual artists appropriating theatre,...