Tripping on the light fantastic

Jerome Bel's choreography aims to provoke his audiences

Katrina Wilber

The oldest proverb of entertainers is simple: The show must go on. But some shows are so radical and provocative it’s hard to keep the audience in the theater.

And that’s just how Jerome Bel likes it. He’s been booed and sued, cheered and jeered. And now, he’s making four stops in North America with his anti-spectacular, “The show must go on.” The company of 20 or so dancers will only be stopping in New York, Minneapolis, Ottawa and Columbus, Ohio.

The notoriety of Bel’s work isn’t the only thing about this 40-year-old choreographer that leaves people scratching their heads. When a French newspaper called him a “nonchoreographer of nonpieces presented on stage preferably by nondancers,” he proudly took it as a compliment.

Born in southern France, Bel studied contemporary dance at the contemporary dance center in Angers, France, before starting a decadelong career as a dancer at 18. He helped direct the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in 1992 and realized he preferred directing to dancing. His choreographic premiere in 1994 was the first of many productions that would question the relationship between performers and audiences.

Reviews and critiques of “The show must go on” describe the clumsy, awkward movements of the dancers. Instead of creating a piece that stuns the audience with the impeccable technique and virtuosity of the dancers, Bel’s choreography is the antithesis of classical dance forms.

Kristin Hohenadel, a critic for The New York Times, described Bel’s show as consisting of “rigorously unbeautiful, starkly ironic movements, few of them actual dance steps.” The invisible wall between dancers and audience, performers and observers, crumbles. When people pay to watch dance, to see graceful movements and follow a storyline, they don’t expect to see people waving lighters on stage and giggling like preteen girls sharing secrets at a sleepover.

The production’s 18 songs cover everything from “West Side Story” and “Titanic” to David Bowie and Lionel Richie. The popularity of these songs gives audiences worldwide a bit of familiarity, even if they have no clue what’s happening on stage.

The Pantages Theatre performance of “The show must go on” contains full-frontal nudity. Reel 2 Real’s “I Like to Move It” will never be the same after a male dancer brings the lyrics to life with gyrations that cause his moneymaker to shake in time with the music.

Actions such as this earn Bel a reputation as a provocateur. Despite the harsh reactions his work elicits, the show will go on.