In November 2013, the Walker welcomed Paris-based conceptual choreographer Jérôme Bel for his fourth Walker engagement, a collaboration with Theater HORA, a Zurich-based company of actors with disabilities. Disabled Theater, which has been presented across Europe at festivals and prominent art exhibitions like dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany, has indeed met with a range of responses, from ecstatic, glowing reviews to questions about intent or appropriateness. Understanding the challenging and potentially controversial nature of the piece, we reached out to Interact Center, a Minneapolis-based organization that for 17 years has worked to present “art that challenges perceptions of disability,” to join us as a community partner on the residency with Theater HORA. It’s the third time the Walker’s performing arts department and Interact have worked together; in both 2008 and 2013 we collaborated around performances by Back to Back Theatre, an Australian company of “actors perceived to have intellectual disabilities.”
In late November, Theater HORA members visited Interact Center, and Interact founder and director Jeanne Calvit joined us for the show’s opening night performance and the reception with Bel and the company members that followed it. After that performance, Calvit met with Walker performing arts curator Philip Bither to share her perspective on the work, which she found to be “socially regressive and devoid of any compelling artistic merit.” After talking through their very different perspectives on this work, he encouraged Calvit to share her concerns with us in writing. The Walker regularly uses its website to publish a diverse array of independent voices and opinions which don’t reflect the views of the Walker or its curators. In this instance, we felt it important to share Calvit’s perspective on what we believe to be a compelling and important, if controversial, work.
Thank you for this opportunity to share my response to the recent Jérôme Bel/Theater HORA performance at the Walker. As both an experienced theater artist and a person who has worked with artists with disabilities for most of my career, I was disappointed and angered by what I saw as both socially regressive and devoid of any compelling artistic merit. It has taken me some time to respond to this work, not because I didn’t want to respond sooner, but because I was careful to get past my own sense of outrage in order to be able to articulate the reasons for that outrage.
A bit about who I am: A graduate of the École Jacques Lecoq in Paris, my 40+ year theater career includes work with companies throughout Europe, the Middle East, and in the US, and I have spent much of that career working with artists with disabilities. I founded Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts in the mid-1990s, a theater ensemble and studio/gallery for artists with disabilities. Interact has been recognized nationally and internationally for the award-winning, high quality of our work and for our pioneering spirit of radical inclusion, a philosophy that blurs ideas of “who can” and “who cannot” and embraces the full spectrum of human potential.
Jérôme Bel’s work was an affront to my sense of artistic integrity, but my real outrage was at the demeaning content of this work -‐‐ and at the fact that the Walker put this on stage at all.
Artistically, Jérôme Bel characterizes his work as avant garde. Yet the earliest use of that phrase in its customary sense, by St. Simian Rodriguez in 1825, states that the “power of the arts is the most immediate and fastest way to social, political, and economic reform,” and further, he calls upon artists to be the people’s avant garde, the vanguard of change. Bel’s presentation of developmental disability included no notion of why perceptions should change; instead it reinforced the perception that people with disabilities are of little value to society and are incapable of creating high-quality art.
I have been told that Jérôme Bel is a strong collaborator. However, I have seen Theater HORA’s own work, and it is compelling, edgy, and interesting, and it clearly shows the talents of these actors with disabilities. The company itself — sans Mr. Bel, who had never heard of Interact and had no interest in learning about us — came to work with our own actors while they were here in town. They were exceptionally capable artists, far more vibrant and interesting than Bel had portrayed them to be, so even here he failed as a collaborator.
It was explained to me that Bel’s approach is a revolutionary aesthetic of stripping the subject down to its barest essentials, yet that idea of stripping-down is part of the earliest acting exercises in any study of theater. I understand that Bel has used this technique to advantage in other work, for example, paring down to minimalist movement with trained ballet dancers, a witty and provocative attempt to erase the magic and let audiences “in” on exactly what ballet dancers do. Applying this idea to people for whom prevailing expectations are already at the lowest possible level, however, does not open a door to understanding: it reinforces permission for complete disregard.
I shudder to think what the reaction would be if Bel used this framework with a group of, say, African American men, or a group of Muslim women, or a group of Native American children…. the white, paternalistic master saying, “Now Jérôme Bel says to …”
Rather than taking a challenging concept and hammering out a provocative piece of theater, it seems to me that Mr. Bel was working through his own issues about people with disabilities. During the Friday night Q & A, he actually said, “Now, after working with these actors, I am not afraid of people with disabilities any more. Now I feel good when I see them.” It was all about Mr. Bel. In no way did he recognize these actors’ potential for creativity or their ability: “I tried to do performances with them, but it didn’t work.”
It was all the more insulting to have work by this particular European artist presented to US audiences. Theater HORA’s exceptional work in Switzerland is not typical of European attitudes, where they are only just now de-institutionalizing people with disabilities — something the US did 60 years ago. There has been no disability-rights movement in Europe, and Theater HORA’s own work in European theater is breaking ground and setting new standards for the work that can be accomplished by artists with disabilities.
Mr. Bel seems ignorant of our country’s enlightened environment and oblivious to the incredible stigma he reinforces. He asked each of the actors to tell what it’s like to have a disability. One said, “I have Down syndrome, and I am sorry.” Another actor said, “I’m a mongol. A f-‐ing mongoloid.” That is a term that hasn’t been used in this country since the 1950s, and even then it was meant as an insult. Would any of us tolerate such a blatant slap in the face to any other marginalized community? In fact, the very framework of this piece, “Jérôme Bel says do this… Mr. Bel says do that…” was offensive.
One viewer commented, “But look how well they all got along, and they were able to talk about their feelings.” I cannot think of a lower bar to set for a company of artists — that they acted like humans and were able to have friendships.
Mr. Bel would have us believe that he understood the people he was supposedly collaborating with, and he insisted during the Q & A that he wanted to “show their humanity.” His approach smacked of the worst kind of exploitation. It was demeaning and dehumanizing. It portrayed people with disabilities as having no gifts to bring to the world, little sense of joy or wonder, little emotional or intellectual intelligence. He fits the stereotype of the “modern artist” who is working out his own issues: self-absorbed, not in touch with reality. In reinforcing stereotypes about people with disabilities, he wrapped himself in stereotype.
I’ve spoken to many other audience members who have had the same reaction. Several people walked away from the after-show talk because they couldn’t bear to listen to Jérôme Bel talk about himself any longer. Anyone who had any connection to people with disabilities cringed at what was happening on stage and left with heavy hearts at the idea that this could be considered groundbreaking art.
I believe serious harm was done to the image of individuals with disabilities through this performance. I therefore invite anyone who attended to find a way to experience people with disabilities in their own right — as fully realized, happy, angry, full of joy, full of despair, smart and no-‐so…. regular people. Visit Interact any day of the week to see a rehearsal, or spend time in our studio, or drop in on any of the dozens of Twin Cities organizations that celebrate the work of people with disabilities.