I had just read Hyperallergic’s latest Powerless 20 a couple of hours before sitting down to see Jérôme Bel’s new piece, Disabled Theater, now at New York Live Arts as part of Performa 13. While reading the Powerless list, I was struck by the choice to include curators whose shows focus on identity politics. I wrote about Radical Presence, the exhibition that Adrian Piper pulled out of, which is mentioned on the list, and I’m curious what led her to make that choice now, after her work had already been part of an earlier iteration of it in Houston, as well as the catalogue. But I’m not someone who thinks that changing one’s mind is a bad thing, as the political spin factories would have us believe. More often than not, doing so invites people to reevaluate their beliefs, which we don’t encourage each other to do enough. Piper certainly has a point about identity-focused shows being potentially limiting; it’s one that has concerned and frustrated many artists past and present. Ultimately, it doesn’t seem like there are easy answers on either side of the argument.
Bel’s performance piece is of a similar nature — the isolating/highlighting variety. He points it out right in the title: Disabled Theater. It’s an awkward construction. Is the theater itself disabled? That seems a little simplistic. Of course, what he’s referring to is the fact that 10 of the 11 performers have cognitive disabilities of one kind or another.
The action begins when a woman, Simone Truong, with no stated cognitive disabilities, tells us that she was asked to be a translator for Bel and the performers. From that point forward she describes, in an affectless tone, a series of instructions that Bel gave to the cast: “Then Jerome asked the performers…” After describing each one to the audience in English, she repeats it for the cast in Swiss German, their native tongue. Following that, the cast executes the instruction. For example, she starts by telling us that Jerome wanted the performers to enter one at a time and stand alone in front of the audience for one minute. Other instructions include having the artists tell us what their disabilities are, performing solo dances, and telling us what they thought about the show.
It’s an incredibly simple and straightforward structure. Instruction, performance of task, instruction, performance of task, etc. It evokes the early happenings of the 1960s and ’70s, and an ongoing tradition of using scores rather than scripts or pre-planned choreography in both performance and dance, as a way to introduce things like chance, spontaneity, and open interpretation into this type of work. In this particular instance it is, in large part, driven by the fact that many of the performers are unable to memorize lines or actions.
What’s complicated about Bel’s structure in this piece is that it evokes questions about agency and audience. Here, essentially, Bel plays the role of the wizard behind the curtain. He never appears onstage, only through the amplified voice of the translator. He is an absent dictator.
As the play reaches what could be described as its theatrical climax, after six of the performers have done solos that Bel chose from the group of ten, we hear what the performers think of the show. Taking all the responses together, ambivalence reigned. While there were definitely some who expressed pleasure and happiness, two of the performers spoke about members of their family disliking the piece because of the particular way it put them on display; the sister of one cried in the car on the way home. Performer Miranda Hossle, who read a book onstage through much of the second half, said only, “In this show, my job is to be myself.” Another, Tiziana Pagliaro, answered simply, “I don’t know.” And another, Julia Häusermann, announced that she didn’t want to hear Michael Jackson anymore; she wanted to hear Justin Bieber because she was a fan. Häusermann’s response in particular struck me because I had assumed that each cast member had chosen their own music for the solos, and I had been surprised by her choice of Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Care About Us (the lyrics for which, along with its two different music videos, ignited some controversy). Hearing her statement made me wonder if the Jackson song was instead assigned to her by Bel.
Following these responses, Truong, the translator, tells us that upon hearing them, Bel decided to let the four artists whose solos weren’t chosen perform their works. In other words, the dramatic climax relates to Bel changing his mind, not a change or narrative that belongs to the performers. That isn’t to dismiss the work or contribution of the artists to the piece, but to point out that its narrative structure focuses more on Bel than on the stories or lives of the people on stage.
In the interviews I’ve read with Bel, he spends quite a bit of time speaking about his experience of working with these performers. He describes initially saying no to Theater HORA, who commissioned him to create the piece, but then explains that he was drawn in by the group, and in the end personally transformed by the experience of working with them. So, much of the press, again, focuses on Bel’s experience.
All of which gets to the root of the problem with identity-focused shows: who are they for? In this show, it felt at certain moments like Bel was making an assumption that those in the audience have, like him, had little to no previous contact with people who have cognitive disabilities. But that’s a tough assumption to make. Also, if you’re using the play as a vehicle to establish contact with individuals you believe the audience hasn’t spent time with before, then it seems like the narrative arc should highlight the performers more — their stories, their lives.
The point is, there’s a risk that superficial contact within an isolated setting that favors the audience removes the necessity of grappling with the larger difficulty of integrating all people and differences into our everyday lived experiences. My sense is that’s some part of Piper’s choice to pull her work from Radical Presence, though I do think that show dealt more with that concern. In Bel’s work, my frustration comes from the fact that it felt a little superficial. I certainly enjoyed many moments; I just wonder whether members of the audience might walk away thinking they had an experience that obviates them from having other, deeper ones.