Enter downstage centre: a projection of a theatre nearly identical to the one in which you sit. In the image, decorously arranged rows of empty, red velvet seats face a red velvet curtain draped from ceiling to floor. The image then disappears and is replaced by another empty theatre, followed by another. A ten-minute slideshow unfolds, depicting stages and theatres around the world. With each new image, the camera angle changes perspective – right, centre stage, left and back – completing a full circle. The opening sequence to Jérôme Bel’s latest project Gala primes the audience for an experience in multiplicity: grand opera houses, small independent theatres, outdoor amphitheatres and beachfront stages. An effect, in sum, that communicates the universality-in-difference that is the theme of the subsequent live performance.
After the projected amuse-bouche ends, the curtain opens. Standing at the foot of the stage is a repurposed oversize calendar of Mark Rothko’s ‘multiforms’ (1946–49) – a sly wink to the audience that the ensuing performance should be read as a study in form. Each page is flipped, revealing simple handwritten terms from the canons of dance history – ballet, waltz, Michael Jackson, improvisation in silence, solo, company, etc. One by one, the dancers take to the stage, responding to the individual terms. Individual performances of pirouettes and grands jetés from ballet and Michael Jackson’s moonwalk are followed by waltz duets and group performances. Throughout the series of exercises, the dancers casually perform their own learned and/or imagined version of the specified prompts. Solo and company dance routines using modern dance, folk dance, Hawaiian dance, baton twirling, electro and hip-hop allow each dancer to feature his or her individual strengths and weaknesses.
For each production in different cities, casting is held locally to source two ballet dancers, two teenagers, two retired people, two kids, two actors and two disabled people, and so on. The work brings together both professional dancers and amateurs – Bel’s use of ‘amateurs’ however, focuses on the original French sense of the word meaning ‘a lover of’ rather than the common use of the term ‘unskilled’. Whereas traditional dance companies often aim for uniformity, for Bel there is no right or wrong way to move, and Gala explores how interpretations of aesthetic form play out in the imaginations and expectations of diverse dancers and audiences.
At times, it seems that Bel is trying to undermine the ideas of perfection and hierarchies in society, reacting to status-quo expectations of social systems. In the past, he has cited post-Structuralist theory as point of reference, though with this new work, he introduces a supportive and constructive analysis of social organization. One of the goals of Gala, with its pluralistic vision, is to create altruistic portraits of each person as a dancer attempting his or her best. The result accounts for an emphasis on vulnerability, placing the performers’ hopes and imagination on display. In Gala, judgements and hierarchies are equalized as each of the dancers’ interpretations become equally meaningful. The function of the amateur is not to make qualitative critical assessments of good or bad, but to promote inherent potential.