Amateurs join professionals in Jerome Bel's dance Gala

Gala.
Gala.PHOTO: JOSEPHINA TOMMASI
Jerome Bel.
Jerome Bel.PHOTO: JEROME BEL

Choreographer Jerome Bel celebrates dance and diversity in Gala by including non-professionals of all ages

Gala may come as a bit of a shock for audiences expecting a professional dance performance.

Its director and creator, French choreographer Jerome Bel, sets loose on stage a mix of seasoned dancers and complete amateurs in a raw, exuberant exploration of what it means to dance.

He sees the work as a celebration of diversity - of bodies, movement and ability.

"We try not to teach anyone what to do and how to dance," Bel, 51, tells The Straits Times in an e-mail interview. "On the contrary, Gala is based on the subjectivity of each of the 20 dancers - his or her own imagination and knowledge, identification and desire. I am not the choreographer anymore. They are."

After ending its run in Germany recently, the show is headed to Singapore's Victoria Theatre from Oct 6 to 8. Gala will be presented here by TheatreWorks, which first worked with Bel in 2004.

Some people feel uncomfortable sometimes by the frailty of some of the performers, but I think they should be confronted with that.

JEROME BEL on the reaction of audience members to Gala. The Singapore show features dancers from seven to 74 years old

Twenty Singapore residents aged seven to 74 with varying skills will take the stage. It will be a succession of different dance pieces, Bel says, though he stops short of revealing the exact details of the performance.

He says: "It's a dance gala so, yes, everyone is dancing - even the ones who think they can't."

The idea came to Bel two years ago, after French actress Jeanne Balibar invited him to conduct dance workshops in Seine Saint- Denis, Paris' poorest suburb.

There, he worked with amateurs who came from all walks of life, bringing with them a rich array of backgrounds, cultures and interpretations of dance.

"It was very difficult as each of the participants has his or her own references and, suddenly, I realised it could be a very interesting choreographical project," says Bel.

"How to gather people who are very diverse? From that point, I decided to make a dance piece with amateurs."

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  • WHERE: Victoria Theatre, 9 Empress Place

    WHEN: Oct 6 to 8, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $22 to $30 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

His decision to throw some seasoned dancers, such as Ma Yanling, into the mix was also part of his commitment to diversity.

"I started with amateurs and then I realised I should add some professionals too, not to exclude anyone," he says. "And this is very nice because it increases the range of what dance can be - from a six-year- old boy who has never taken a dance class to a professional ballerina, who studied dance nearly all her life."

The challenge, he says, is to free amateurs, who are unfamiliar with their bodies and the scrutiny of an audience, from fear and judgment.

To ward these off, he offers them a quote from novelist Samuel Beckett as a mantra: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

In the process, they have given Bel, who has been in dance for more than three decades, fresh insights and a renewed spark.

"I love the fact that they are destroying the rules of theatre as they don't know them," he says. "This is so refreshing and revealing, so different from what I have naturalised from my own culture."

Bel had a late start in dance, studying contemporary dance at the Centre Choregraphique National in Angers, France, in 1984 and performing until 1991.

The 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, when he worked as assistant director for the opening ceremony, marked the start of his journey as a creator.

He presented his first piece in 1994 - Nom Donne Par L'auteur (or Name Given By The Author), which focused on everyday objects such as a vacuum cleaner - and is still going strong, with his shows travelling to cities such as London and New York.

Dance in Bel's eyes - and on his stage - is democratic: All are welcome, no matter their size, shape or level of skill. It is his way of shaking things up in a contemporary dance scene that has become "as standardised as ballet", populated by young, slim and good-looking dancers who see dance the same way.

"I was bored watching dancers not just with the same bodies, but also the same references and cultures. I had the intuition that something was wrong in the representations of bodies that contemporary dance was offering," he says.

"It was too uniform. I thought I could try to find a way to represent different bodies on stage, as diverse at least as the bodies of the spectators. So everyone could be represented and not just one canon."

Bel, who has earned a reputation as the enfant terrible or rebel of contemporary dance, has turned heads with his efforts to push the boundaries of dance and upset the expectations people have of it.

He quips: "I'm not an enfant anymore. Terrible, I don't know.

"But it is great to make my own therapy with my work which expresses my relation to others and to the world. It helps me to understand myself better, even as my pieces help the spectators to understand themselves better. That's why people, including myself, go to see performances: to learn and to understand others, the ones who are on stage, but also ourselves."

Through dance, he has also shone the spotlight on groups that may be overlooked.

In 2014, Disabled Theatre by Theater Hora, in collaboration with Bel, was staged here for the Singapore International Festival of Arts, with intellectually disabled performers taking centre stage.

"It was a way to make them visible. The audience has to watch, for the first time in its life, disabled people for 90 minutes - something we never do because we don't want to," says Bel.

"There is fear because there is ignorance. Because it is unknown. Theatre, art, representation is a way to connect with the unknown."

He adds: "It is a way to see things you are not allowed to watch in your daily life. It is a way to learn and then lose the fear of alterity. When you know about something, when you understand it, you have no more fear.

"That's why maybe the first artists represented dangerous animals on the walls of their caves, in order to fear them less."

The reactions Gala has received have been supportive. And it has, in a way, been a revelation for audiences.

"Some people feel uncomfortable sometimes by the frailty of some of the performers, but I think they should be confronted with that," he says. "This is obviously related to their own issues with failure, which is common in our capitalist societies where success is the only goal."

He adds: "This piece is very political in the sense of how a community can function. Here, it is a dance company, but it is symbolic of what society can be."

Bel is now looking to dive back into work with professional dancers, armed with his experience working with amateurs and the disabled.

He is working on a new piece for the Lyon Opera Ballet, which has "very good dancers, very trained".

"But I want them to forget this, so they go back to a kind of simpler experience of the body - a body which could be empty, which could be renovated, reinvested in a kind of therapeutic manner," he says.

"A body with no skills, no strength. A body for itself, as a source of joy and peace, something with no aggression as dance can be. I don't know, it is a work in progress for now."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2016, with the headline 'Leap of faith with amateurs'. Print Edition | Subscribe